Subsidies drive Murray-Darling Basin extractions as environment loses

The Murray Darling Basin during drought. Photo : Shutterstock

Subsidised irrigators extracted up to 28 per cent more water than those who received no funds under a national Murray-Darling Basin irrigation efficiency program, a new study has found.

by Caroline Tang

The Australian Government’s $4 billion irrigation efficiency program has led to irrigators who received irrigation infrastructure subsidies extracting up to 28 per cent more water in the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) than those who did not receive any funds – affecting the environment and other users, new research has found.

Water management experts across disciplines from UNSW, The University of Adelaide, Australian National University (ANU) and the Environmental Defenders Office examined the impact of taxpayer-funded irrigation infrastructure upgrades on water extractions and environmental water recovery in the MDB.

Their findings, published in the international journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling this week, analysed almost 2500 on-farm MDB irrigation surveys, with surveys in 2010-2011 and 2015-2016, identifying a “rebound effect” of increased water extractions, coinciding with the Australian Government’s investment in irrigation infrastructure upgrades.

Combined with documented concerns around measurement of water and compliance, this raises serious doubts about the true extent to which environmental flows are increasing at a catchment and basin level, as a consequence of the subsidised upgrades.

Lead author and resource economist Professor Sarah Wheeler from The University of Adelaide said: “Our analysis over the past decade found that irrigators who received infrastructure grants actually increased their water extraction volumes by 21 to 28 per cent, compared to irrigators who received no subsidies.”

The subsidies aim to help irrigators upgrade their infrastructure technology to save water and return some savings to the environment, in a bid to increase stream flows and ultimately reinstate a sustainable level of extraction in the MDB.

Study co-author and environmental scientist Professor Richard Kingsford, Director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science at UNSW Sydney, said the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was an ambitious initiative to solve the escalating problems the basin’s rivers faced, but the implementation of some government programs seemed to have the opposite effect of what they had intended.

“The ‘buyback’ of irrigation water has put water back into the rivers, but our research found the subsidised infrastructure program could be ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ by enabling more water extractions than water recovered through the efficiency program,” Prof Kingsford said.

Read the whole article here and the paper here.

Links to more news articles on the topic below;

Questions raised about Murray-Darling water conservation program

Irrigators given subsidies under 4bn Murray-Darling scheme drew more water study finds

Rebound effect drains even more water from Murray-Darling Basin