Five myths about the Murray Darling Basin Plan


1/ The cuts to allocations take too much water from farmers. They are unfair.

The truth is that more water has been allocated than exists. Reducing the allocations is simply trying to get out of bankruptcy. Everyone has to give up a little so that there is enough to go around.

2/ Farmers are being asked to give up water for the environment

Only the National Farmers Federation and a handful of Federal Politicians who should know better are pushing this line and a misinformed media are buying it. The truth is that farmers depend on the environment for the basic elements they use to produce food. They are beneficiaries of the environment. They convert sunlight and water into biomass with the help of a little fertiliser.

Across most of Australia, water is the limiting resource most of the time. Irrigation is a mechanism of taking water from the environment to boost production. If that is seen as a loan, then there must come a time when it is repaid. If that is viewed as a permanent extraction, then eventually the environment runs short and the farms fail. That is the situation in the Murray Darling at the moment.

Farmers are simply being asked to stop stealing so much water that the system fails.

3/ Reducing allocations will drive farmers off the land

Farmers get a fraction of their allocation in dry years and during the drought got no allocation at all for many years. Reducing the allocations will only affect them in the wettest years in the cycle, when they have the least need for water. Their production may be curtailed somewhat in those wet years, but will not be devastated.

The real challenge will be in those years when the rivers are still flowing strongly but the rainfall is reduced. Ie when the system is heading into drought. Farmers will want full allocations in those years but it is critical that the water be left to feed the wetlands, underground water systems and peripheral parts of the river system that help the communities across the landscape survive in dry years.

4/ Reducing allocations will devastate the rural economy.

Over the last century rural towns have shrunk and become shadows of their former selves as the size of farms have grown and the number of people living on the land has shrunk. The volume of food grown on irrigated plots may need to be reduced and individual farmers who have invested in irrigation infrastructure may need to be compensated but the communities as a whole will benefit from healthy rivers.

5/ The guide does not balance environment, social and economic factors

This statement does not take into account the decline in rural towns and the depopulation of the landscape already mentioned. Neither does it take into consideration the fact the damage done to the landscape and the social and economic infrastructure by extractive farming.

What the guide does is attempt to develop a model that describes a sustainable level of water use. The politicisation of this debate has confused the issue and cast these aspects into competition with each other, when they are different legs of the same stool.

There will need to be support in helping farms convert to cell pasture, deep rooted pasture cropping and other dryland techniques that help restore permanent water into the landscape but that is better than paying people to walk off the land.

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