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

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Study argued such schemes are like ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul, while half of irrigators said program was ‘wasteful’

A new study has found that the government’s $4bn Murray-Darling irrigation efficiency program, designed to make farms more efficient while returning some of the saved water to the environment has actually led to irrigators who received subsidies extracting more water than those who did not.

The study by academics from University of Adelaide, University of NSW, the Australian National University and the Environmental Defenders office found up to 28% more water was extracted by those who received subsidies.

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World news | The Guardian

A new study has found that the government’s $4bn Murray-Darling irrigation efficiency program, designed to make farms more efficient while returning some of the saved water to the environment has actually led to irrigators who received subsidies extracting more water than those who did not.

The study by academics from University of Adelaide, University of NSW, the Australian National University and the Environmental Defenders office found up to 28% more water was extracted by those who received subsidies.

It also found that the subsidies went mainly to corporate farming and that 51% of irrigators themselves were sceptical about whether the programs were working.

Their findings, published in the international journal, Resources, Conservation and Recycling, analysed almost 2,500 on-farm Murray-Darling Basin irrigation surveys and identified a “rebound effect” of increased water extractions, coinciding with the Australian government’s investment in irrigation infrastructure upgrades.

Efficiency programs – such as installing drip irrigation or lining dams – are funded under the Murray Darling Basin plan as a way of reclaiming water for the environment. The water savings achieved by the upgrades are meant to be shared between the farmer and the environment, as a win-win.

But this study argues that the schemes often amount to “robbing Peter to pay Paul” because they reduce flows into the environment that were occurring in the past through groundwater systems and are leading to greater water extractions by those who get the subsidies.

The efficiency programs under the Murray Darling Basin plan have long been controversial because they cost roughly three times as much as buying back water directly from from farmers. But direct buybacks are highly contentious in rural communities because of their economic impact.

Prof Quentin Grafton, from the Crawford School at ANU told a senate committee last year that the difference is approximately $5,400 per megalitre for water infrastructure subsidies versus just over $2,000 per megalitre for the purchase of water entitlements from willing sellers.

Now this report casts doubt about whether they are actually retrieving water at all.

“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,” the authors said.

Lead author and resource economist Prof 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%, 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 Murray Darling Basin.

Prof Richard Kingsford, director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science at UNSW Sydney, said 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,” Kingsford said.

The study also found that half of all irrigators surveyed agreed that the taxpayer-funded program for the irrigation infrastructure was ‘wasteful and inefficient’.

The study found that the program favoured corporate agriculture, in terms of subsidy amount per entity more than family farms.

Locals celebrate as waters of Murray-Darling rivers join for first time in two years – video

The increase water extraction occurred because of changes in crop types, increases in irrigated areas and greater use of surface water entitlements [water that is captured on farm rather than being allowed to flow into the river system],” Grafton said.

Environmental Defenders Office special counsel Emma Carmody said: “There are a range of regulatory and governance issues which could result in the increased taking of water from some rivers and aquifers in the MDB, beyond specified limits.”

These include illegal extractions, increased floodplain harvesting, groundwater substitution and problems with ‘sustainable diversion limit’ compliance tools in some catchments.

Kingsford warned that if water consumption is not being controlled as required by the basin plan, the health of rivers and groundwater systems in the Murray-Darling Basin will continue to degrade, without even accounting for the current and future threat of climate change.


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