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A response to the Guide to the proposed Murray-Darling Basin Plan

By Graeme Batten - posted Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Water is Australia’s most vital asset. Its significance was recognised at Federation in 1901 when the population of this country was only 3.8 million. In a century our population increased to 19 million and is over 22 million in 2010. Concurrent with the increase in the population has been explosion of irrigation in recent times and a widening appreciation of the need to protect the river systems which supply the irrigation water and must be protected as assets in their own right.

Today we are debating the role of water in the future of our country. The issues which must be considered simultaneously are –

  1. The over-allocation of water in some river systems;
  2. The historic variability of run off into streams;
  3. The predictions that rainfall will change (is changing?) due to global warming;
  4. The prediction that the population of Australia will increase by 38 to 87% (to 31 to 42 million) by 2056 (ABS data);
  5. The anxiety in the community about food safety and food security;
  6. The need to define what a sustainable Australia will look like;
  7. The future of regional Australia and the future for Australians who work in and manage regional area; and
  8. Where to direct funds to research, develop and manage growth so that we live within our means as dictated by the amount and the distribution of our water resources.

Above all it is vital that the future uses of the water resource across the whole continent must be carefully planned now and changes set in place to minimise the impacts on the environment, on food security and on regional and city communities. Therefore, the current debate on water allocations, prompted by the Guide to the Proposed Murray-Darling Basin plan, is of utmost importance to every Australia.

It is no surprise that the suggested reductions in water allocations listed on page xxiv of The Guide have polarised the debate and prompted the strong reactions we are seeing at public meetings. The suggested time frame of 5 years to "phase in" the suggested Sustainable Diversion limits (SDLs) (The Guide page xxix) is totally unrealistic. A simple and rapid reduction in water allocations to irrigation communities is not acceptable unless the effects are countered by measures that lead to improved water delivery and utilization efficiencies.

For the Basin Plan to benefit the maximum possible number of Australians is must

  1. Have input from all stakeholder;
  2. Be based on good science;
  3. Set out clear goals agreed to by all parties;
  4. Include support for a) ongoing research, b) extension of information and c) incentives to prompt the adoption of the water efficiency measures in both regional and urban Australia. Research is an investment which repays handsomely. The rewards continue into the future.

If water allocations are suddenly reduced then there is a risk that more water than in recent years will be transferred from the growing of staple foods such as rice, wheat, canola and soybeans to non-staple (in some cases "luxury") products such as wine grapes or to crops which give a high return per megalitre but for which there is a risk of oversupply and therefore a price penalty in the market place.

Irrigators deserve recognition for the gains they have made already.


Irrigators have clearly demonstrated they have the ability to produce more staple food such as rice or more money from the available water. For example, between 1980 and 2000 rice growers doubled the amount of rice they produced from each megalitre of water. In the last 10 years further gains have been achieved despite serious cutbacks in research funding and severe losses of research and extension staff from state and federal agencies.

Gains continue to be made.

Very high yields of rice can be obtained using new fast growing rice varieties. Even more encouraging is recent work which demonstrated that rice does not need ponded conditions in the first half of its life. And the rice growing season is now shorter than in the past leading to water savings.

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About the Author

Graeme D Batten is an Honorary Professor at the University of Sydney and an Adjunct Professor of Irrigation at Charles Sturt University. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Near Infrared Spectroscopy and Secretary The Australian Near Infrared Spectroscopy Group.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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