The Millennium Drought, the longest and most severe drought for a hundred years, prompted some people to panic about climate change and conclude that drought was the new normal, that water would always be scarce, and that the environment was facing catastrophe.
More sensible people knew, and others found out, that droughts always end. That occurred in 2010/11 with widespread flooding. Wetlands recovered, birds bred enthusiastically, frogs and fish proliferated and the cycle of life resumed as it has for thousands of years. Dorothea Mackellar's description of Australia as a land of droughts and flooding rains was never better demonstrated.
However, during the drought, a plan was devised, first by the Howard Liberal government and then by the Gillard Labor government, to remove water from agriculture in order to 'save' the environment. Whether this would have occurred in the absence of the drought is uncertain; although water management was imperfect, with over allocation in some areas, the arguments at the time were all about equitably sharing between the states.
In 2007 the Howard government introduced the Water Act, which required the development of a plan to manage water in the Murray Darling Basin. The details of that plan were negotiated with the states by the Gillard government. Against the background of drought and state rivalry, it was 1% science and 99% politics.
The plan calls for the "return" of 2,750 GL of water to the environment, via both water rights purchased from farmers and water efficiency measures. A further 450 GL is to be returned subject to certain conditions. Implementation commenced in 2012, with water rights purchased from farmers in southern Queensland, NSW and Victoria, plus a small quantity from SA.
In 2015 and 2016 I chaired a Senate inquiry into the effects of its implementation, with hearings in nine locations including each of the participating states. We also flew from the mouth of the Murray to Renmark in South Australia to allow us to have a good look at the lower lakes.
The Senate committee found that the loss of irrigation water was having a very significant impact on rural communities. Farms which previously grew irrigated crops, such as pasture for dairy cows, cotton, or fruit and vegetables, now grew dryland crops or ran a few sheep. They required far fewer inputs, such as machinery and fertilisers, and generated far less income. Farm and supplier workers lost their jobs and moved away, leaving communities with fewer school children, volunteer fire fighters and customers in local shops.
The committee also found there was a very poor understanding of the plan. Among environmentalists, for example, there was an almost religious belief that the environment simply needed more water. Indeed, this continues today, with claims that unless the full amount of water is delivered, environmental disaster will follow. This is despite the fact that water can do more harm than good unless it is in the right place, at the right time, in the right quantities.
Lack of understanding runs particularly deep in South Australia. Its outrage over allegations that water is being misappropriated from the Darling and Barwon rivers in NSW is ridiculous, given only about 5-6% of the water in these two rivers ever gets that far. If anyone is entitled to be outraged it is downstream NSW farmers who cannot access water to which they are legally entitled.
There are also regular claims that Adelaide's water supply, SA agriculture or even the state's survival are at risk unless the plan is fully implemented. In fact, the plan guarantees SA a minimum of 1850 GL a year, which is not at the slightest risk.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect the committee heard was how a considerable amount of the water (around 900 GL according to witnesses) flowing down the Murray River to SA, much of it taken from productive agriculture in Victoria and NSW, is evaporating each year in Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert, also known as the lower lakes.
The point was made that, while evaporation is unavoidable, there is no need for it to be fresh water. If Lake Alexandrina was allowed to remain open, subject to tidal influences rather than closed by man-made barrages, it could be seawater that evaporates (or at least a mixture of fresh and seawater). Preserving an artificially created environment at the expense of Australian farming and rural communities seems very poor public policy.
But the bottom line is this - the Murray Darling Basin Plan was conceived in panic, negotiated with little reference to science and data, and is seriously imperfect. Its intentions – to preserve the natural environment - are laudable, but it should not be treated as holy writ. There is enormous scope for improvement.