Tag Archives: Murray-Darling basin

How to Manage Water Like Money and Fail: Australia

Australia’s Darling River…provided fresh water to farmers seeking to tame Australia’s rugged interior.  No longer. The Darling River hasn’t flowed for eight months, with long stretches completely dried up. A million fish died there in January 2019.  Kangaroos, lizards and birds became sick or died after drinking from toxic pools of stagnant water.  Australia’s water-trading market is drawing blame. The problems with the system, created more than a decade ago, have arisen as similar programs are being considered in the U.S.

Water crises are unfolding across the world as surging populations, industrial-scale farming and hotter temperatures deplete supplies.  Australia thought it had the answer: a cap-and-trade system that would create incentives to use water efficiently and effectively in the world’s driest inhabited continent. But the architects of water trading didn’t anticipate that treating water as a commodity would encourage theft and hoarding.   A report produced for a state resources regulator found the current situation on the Darling was caused by too much water being extracted from the river by a handful of big farmers. Just four license holders control 75% of the water extracted from the Barwon-Darling river system.

The national government, concerned that its water-trading experiment hasn’t turned out as intended, in August 2019 requested an inquiry by the country’s antitrust regulator into water trading.  Anticorruption authorities are investigating instances of possible fraud, water theft and deal making for water licenses. In one case, known as Watergate, a former agriculture minister allegedly oversaw the purchase of a water license at a record price from a Cayman Islands company co-founded by the current energy minister. The former agriculture minister said he was following departmental advice and had no role in determining the price or the vendor. The energy minister said he is no longer involved with the company and received no financial benefit from the deal.

Since 2007, Australia has allowed not only farmers but also investors who want to profit from trading to buy and sell water shares. The water market is now valued at some $20 billion.    But making water valuable had unintended consequences in some places. “Once you create something of real value, you should expect people to attempt to steal it and search for ways to cheat,” says Mike Young, a University of Adelaide professor. “It’s not rocket science. Manage water like money, and you are there.”  Big water users have stolen billions of liters of water from rivers and lakes, according to local media investigations and Australian officials, often by pumping it secretly and at night from remote locations that aren’t metered. A new water regulator set up in New South Wales investigated more than 300 tips of alleged water thefts in its first six months of operation.  In 2018, authorities charged a group of cotton farmers with stealing water, including one that pleaded guilty to pumping enough illegally to fill dozens of Olympic-size swimming pools.  Another problem is that water trading gives farmers an incentive to capture more rain and floodwater, and then hoard it, typically by building storage tanks or lining dirt ditches with concrete. That enables them to collect rain before it seeps into the earth or rivers.

The subsequent water shortages, combined with trading by dedicated water funds and corporate farmers, have driven up prices. Water in Australia’s main agricultural region, the Murray-Darling river basin, now trades at about $420 per megaliter, or one million liters, compared with as low as $7 in previous years.  David Littleproud, Australia’s water-resources minister, says 14% of water licenses are now owned by investors. “Is that really the intent of what we want this market to be?” he asks. “Water is a precious commodity.”

Excerpts from Rachel Pannett , The U.S. Wants to Adopt a Cap-and-Trade Plan for Water That Isn’t Working, WSJ, Sept. 4, 2019

How to Kill One Million Fish: Murray-Darling

But it took a viral video posted on 8 January 2019 to drive home the ecological catastrophe that was unfolding in the Murray-Darling river system in Australia. In the footage, Rob McBride and Dick Arnold, identified as local residents, stand knee-deep among floating fish carcasses in the Darling River, near the town of Menindee. They scoff at authorities’ claims that the fish die-off is a result of the drought. Holding up an enormous, dead Murray cod, a freshwater predator he says is 100 years old, McBride says: “This has nothing to do with drought, this is a manmade disaster.” Arnold, sputtering with rage, adds: “You have to be bloody disgusted with yourselves, you politicians and cotton growers.”

Scientists say McBride probably overestimated the age of the fish. But they agree that the massive die-off was not the result of drought. “It’s about taking too much water upstream [to irrigate farms] so there is not enough for downstream users and the fish,” says Quentin Grafton, an economist specializing in water issues at Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra. The Australia Institute, a Canberra-based think tank, blamed “policy failure and mismanagement” in a 19 January 2019 report, but called drought a catalyst.

Excessive water use has left river flows too low to flush nutrients from farm runoff through the system, leading to large algal blooms, researchers say. A cold snap then killed the blooms, and bacteria feeding on the dead algae sucked oxygen out of the water,   This wasn’t supposed to happen. In 2012, the national government adopted the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, touted as a “historic” deal to ensure that enough water remained in the rivers to keep the ecosystem healthy even after farmers and households took their share.

In 2008, the federal government created the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to wrestle with the problem. In 2010, a study commissioned by the authority concluded that farmers and consumers would have to cut their use of river water by at least 3000 but preferably by 7600 gigaliters annually to ensure the health of the ecosystem. Farmers, who saw their livelihoods threatened, tossed the report into bonfires.  The final plan, adopted as national law in 2012, called for returning just 2750 gigaliters to the rivers, in part by buying water rights back from users. “It was a political compromise that has never been scientifically reviewed,” Williams says, adding that “climate change was never considered in the plan, which was a dreadful oversight.”..

Grafton says there are also suspicions of widespread water theft; up to 75% of the water taken by irrigators in the northern part of the system is not metered. Farmers are also now recapturing the runoff from irrigated fields that used to flow back into streams, and are increasing their use of ground water, leaving even less water in the system, says Mike Young, an environmental policy specialist at the University of Adelaide in Australia.

In February 2018, such issues prompted a group of 12 academics, including scientists and policy experts, to issue the Murray-Darling Declaration. It called for independent economic and scientific audits of completed and planned water recovery schemes to determine their effects on stream flows. The group, which included Williams and Grafton, also urged the creation of an independent, expert body to provide advice on basin water management. Young, who wasn’t on the declaration, wants to go further and give that body the power to manage the basin’s water, the way central banks manage a country’s money supply, using stream levels to determine weekly irrigation allocations and to set minimum flow levels for every river.

Excerpts from Dennis Normile, Massive fish die-off sparks outcry in Australia, Science, Jan. 22, 2019.

The Water Barons of Australia

Australia has one of the world’s most sophisticated water-trading systems, and officials in other water-challenged places—notably California and China—are drawing on its experience to manage what the World Bank has called world’s “most precious resource.”  The system here, set up after a catastrophic drought in the 2000s saw the country’s most important river system almost run dry, aims to make sure each gallon of river water goes to higher-value activities.

But the return of severe drought to an area of eastern Australia more than twice the size of Texas is testing the system…Putting a price on water is politically unacceptable in many countries, where access to lakes and rivers is considered a basic right and water is often allocated under administrative rules instead of by markets.

Many water markets that do exist only allow landowners to buy and sell water rights. Australia since 2007 has allowed anyone to trade water parcels, putting supply under the influence of market forces in a system now valued at about $21 billion. Water may be freely bought and sold by irrigators, farmers, water brokers or investors through four exchanges—H2OX, Waterfind, Water Exchange and Ruralco—which allow real-time pricing…

As Australia rewrote the rules of its water market over the last decade to deal with its own drought crises, many farmers chose to sell their water licenses and rely on one-off purchases to keep farming.  The tactic worked until winter rains failed to arrive this year, turning fertile areas into dust bowls. Where a megaliter of water in June last year, before the drought took hold, cost around 3,000 Australian dollars (U.S. $2,166), the price is now closer to A$5,000, according to Aither Water, an advisory firm. The high cost has left smaller farmers praying for rain…

Australia’s drought is splitting agriculture-producing regions into those who have water and those who don’t.  Large investors—including Canadian and U.S. funds—bought high-price water licenses to set up agribusiness ventures in profitable almonds, cotton and citrus, with an eye to growing Asian markets. Others have set up dedicated water investment funds, with prices at the highest levels seen since the drought last decade.

In a country where boom-and-bust cycles, through drought and flood, have historically made water a political flashpoint, some rural Australian lawmakers and farmers want the government to divert water to help parched farms…In August 2018, Victoria state auctioned 20 gigaliters of water that had been earmarked for the environment, putting it on the market for dairy and fruit regions around Cohuna…Some water traders and environmentalists criticized the move as political interference—and said it risked undermining the water market by giving priority to farmers and disrupting forward trades and planning by other irrigators….Euan Friday, a water manager for farm and water investment company Kilter Rural, said the market is doing what it is supposed to do, and warned that the country’s fragile rivers—much smaller than the major rivers of North America—would be facing a dire situation without it. Supported by Australian pension funds, Kilter Rural has invested $130 million in buying water rights and redeveloping farmland.

Excerpt from Australia Model Water Market Struggles with Drought, WSJ, Nov. 8, 2018