Governments like the idea of a win-win – even if it doesn’t exist. That’s why Victoria has spent millions planning “red gum irrigation ponds” – essentially engineered wetlands along the Murray River. These wetlands are designed to save some red gum ecosystems, leave many others behind, and divert billions of gallons of water promised to the environment to farmers.
Victory for environmental water? Not quite. Victoria has spent approximately A$54 million planning these projects. Stopping four of them paves the way for a larger-scale federal buyback of water for the environment. This could mean a resumption of the Murray-Darling Basin water wars, with Victoria the final holdout. Jeremy Morton, president of the National Irrigators’ Council, predicted “riots” if more water were bought back.
What was Victoria trying to do?
Historically, floods covered 6.3 million acres of red gum, black box and coolibah forests, lakes and billabongs in the Murray-Darling Basin. These forests depend on regular flooding to survive.
But the basin is also home to most of our thirsty crops, from rice to cotton to orchards. The demand for irrigation alongside the long-term drying trend from climate change means something is up had to give. You guessed it: it’s the wetlands that dry up and die.
In 2012, state and federal governments launched the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in an effort to resolve longstanding battles over water. The plan was designed to preserve environmental flows while allocating fixed amounts of water to farmers.
But it’s not working properly. If our research shows that since then only 2% of the watershed’s wetlands receive managed environmental flows each year.
To keep wetlands alive with less water, there are two basic options: using pulsed flows from dams to flood a larger area, or building floodplain infrastructure to preserve some wetlands and leave others.
Victoria has pursued infrastructure. If originally plannedthese projects would have involved building $320 million worth of dams, pumps, levees and roads in protected reserves to put artificial water into ponds – while less water in the main river channels. Similar projects were proposed in New South Wales on Menindee Lakesbut these are unlikely to continue.
These projects are greenwashed as “environmental works”. Victoria cheeky calls his plan a “floodplain restoration project”.
It’s not. Since the plan began, irrigation companies have received 605 billion liters of water for 36 largely unimplemented projects under the sustainable diversion mechanism. In November 2022, Basin Authority Chief Andrew McConville constructed the problem:
The credit has been banked, but the payment has yet to be delivered. The payment will be made in the form of the (wetland) projects that are operational on 30 June 2024.
Water has been credited to irrigators before the wetland projects were built. As a result, the actual environmental flows are 19% lower than the objective of the Basin Plan of 3,200 billion liters per year.
Building water-rich infrastructure is unprecedented
Countries around the world are moving the other way to Victoria and removing floodplain infrastructure. In Chinaabout Europe and in the United States, efforts are being made to reconnect rivers to their floodplains. Why? To reduce the impact of flooding (dykes enhance downstream flooding), improve water quality, restore flood-dependent ecosystems, make river systems more recreational-friendly and diversify local economies.
Only in the Murray-Darling Basin do we see governments building infrastructure for environmental water compensation on such a massive scale.
The reason for this compensation is political, not environmental. In 2012, Victoria’s then water minister, Peter Walsh, mention the plan was intended to:
stop withdrawing irrigation water from rural communities and food and fiber producers, and to achieve better environmental outcomes.
Read more: It’s official: The Murray-Darling Basin Plan has failed to deliver on its promise to our precious rivers. So where to now?
In fact, these projects ecologically questionable. Pond water on floodplains may meet some ecological goals, but it cannot mimic unrestricted natural flooding. Even worse, it risks harm ecosystems by upending aquatic food webs and leading to lower native fish populations and poorer water quality.
Victoria’s very expensive projects would only water 14,000 hectares of wetlands. In contrast, safe flood impulses from existing dams would water 27 times that area – 375,000 hectares.
In his report of the royal commission Commissioner Brett Walker found that there was “real doubt” about whether these types of projects were based on the best scientific knowledge.
Our research supports his conclusions. We have found shortcomings in the way these projects are evaluated, leading to an overestimation of their environmental benefits.
What is likely to happen now?
Four down – but what about the remaining five projects?
There is a better option. In 2013, the governments of the basin agreed a strategy allowing pulsed discharges from existing dams to fill river channels and spill into flood plains.
Under this strategy, the Commonwealth would pay for the removal or raising of roads and bridges to make way for natural flood restoration, and compensation to landowners.
Our research shows that this approach would reduce flood damage by moving infrastructure from the floodplain, and allow floods to spread more, reducing water height and velocity. It would also water a much larger swamp area at a much lower cost. But the strategy has not yet been implemented.
Next month, federal and state water ministers will meet to discuss the failing basin plan. If NSW’s new water minister, Rose Jackson, backs her federal Labor colleagues, Victoria will remain the latest state to object to water purchases for river restoration.
The Federal Water Minister, Tanya Plibersek, shows any indication of the implementation of Labour’s 2022 election policy to buy back the remaining water needed to meet the 3,200 billion liter environmental restoration target under the scheme. (The federal government bought back about 2,100 billion gallons since 2008.)
The tone is set: will Plibersek prevail and finally achieve the long-sought environmental restoration goals under the basin plan, or will Victoria hold out?
Read more: Money for dams dries up as good water stewardship finally becomes a federal budget