When the Murray Darling Basin Authority held a meeting in Griffith last Thursday, irrigators tried to replicate their stunt of burning copies of the plan in the street. Luckily, the good folk at the MDBA had planned for this contingency and waxed the report to a high Charlie Sheen — neatly rendering the pages flame retardant. This serves as a good metaphor for the response of irrigators to the plan more broadly; a great deal of sound and fury, but ultimately self-defeating.

It’s deeply ironic that residents of the Murray-Darling Basin are so violently up in arms about the releasing of water into the river on which they rely. While today they are reliant on water levels to which they’ve grown accustomed, a dead river isn’t about to keep supporting Australia’s food bowl or the farmers therein.

What we have is a draft Murray Darling Basin Plan that fails to serve not only the river, but those who live on and around it. A strong plan would keep an eye fixed firmly on the long term goal of delivering a healthy river system that can support those communities.

Instead, the draft basin plan falls well short of this long term goal. Vested interests are hijacking the debate and introducing confusion and obfuscation wherever possible, such as the claim that the plan, with its minimal increases in water restrictions, will push up food prices. To navigate this minefield, it’s important to keep the facts in sight.

First and foremost is the fact that the science on this is clear. To preserve a living, healthy river system, 4,000 gigalitres of water needs to be returned. The plan proposes only 2,750GL, leaving everyone dissatisfied, robbing Peter to pay nobody in particular. Without enough water the river dies, and with it the jobs and communities it supports.

The argument isn’t about jobs or a healthy river as the irrigation lobby make out. It is about getting a healthy river and jobs. The birds, the native fish, the red gums and the lower lakes will all thank us for that, as will the towns, cities and industries dependent on the Murray’s freshwater, and fishers and tourism operators who rely on a healthy river for their trade.

Beyond those living directly off the water, we also know that healthy rivers underpin a healthy agricultural sector. Healthy rivers store, filter and deliver water to farmers, water important habitat for pollinators and flush salt from the system.

People cannot do all this. Nature does it for us for nothing. When it can’t, we have to redirect money from vital public services to fill the gap. The South Australian government calculated that the last drought’s impact on the Murray cost the state $790 million (see page 32) including $122 million in repairing salinity damage, $160 million in bunds, regulators and pipelines and $294 million in lost tourism.

Likewise, environmental values, even if hard to pin down, are very much “economic” and must not be ignored.

Unfortunately, the Basin Authority has failed to comprehensively consider the massive economic benefits of a healthy river, focusing instead on the costs. Of 23 economic studies commissioned for the draft basin plan only three look at the benefits and the major study remains unfinished.

Nonetheless, the MDBA has done some work to estimate the value of a healthy river, concluding that 4000 GL of extra water is worth $8.5 billion (page 115) to Australians, well above the highest cost estimates.

In relation to jobs, the most detailed economic studies project underlying growth of 13,000 jobs (page 83) a year, while only 200 jobs will be lost due to water reforms. This could be attributed to wishful thinking if it wasn’t supported by recent firsthand experience.

A decade of drought has shown what happens when nature forces more severe water cuts than those proposed under the draft basin plan — jobs grew in many regions, value of production stayed high and farmers innovated through more water efficient production methods.

South Australia, which received less water as it was already used by irrigators upstream, led the way, and is now the only state with more than 4% of its workforce employed in agriculture.

A draft basin plan that fails to achieve a healthy river sells short the communities, farms and businesses who rely on the river, from the mouth to the headwaters. It’s time to focus on the facts and deliver on the promises. There will be no jobs on a dead river.

Peter Fray

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