Drought or Water, Pain or Plenty
Ron Pike Quadrant Online October 27th 2018
No one can tell when the current drought will end, although two centuries of observing Australia’s climate suggests that happy day is still a long way off. Such is life on our island continent, but it needn’t be that way. There is a coherent, sane approach to water conservation we might try
‘Water, water everywhere, nor ever a drop to drink’
Those words, uttered by the Ancient Mariner in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem could soon be the cry of Australians with no water for food production and harsh restrictions on municipal use. As we enter another drought, the length and severity of which we have no way of knowing, it is time to aggressively question why we are not managing our water as our forefathers taught us. How is it that not even one year into a drought there are dry rivers, little water left in storages and near-zero allocations of water for summer cropping across NSW? Faced with economy-destroying shortages of water and power we seem incapable of discerning fact from fiction in relation to water policy.
Claims by Greens, so-called environmentalists, the media and unthinking politicians would have Australians believe
1. Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth.
2. Australia is short of water.
3. Australia’s water is not where we need it.
4. Dams destroy rivers and there are no remaining sites to build new ones.
These have become accepted truths that are, in fact, gross misconceptions and wildly inaccurate. Indulge me to address them one at a time.
While the first statement is technically true it is also irrelevant unless we appreciate that Australia is also the smallest continent and, far more important, has a miniscule population compared to the other continents. If we look at our water availability per head of population (which is much more meaningful), whether via precipitation per head or by average annual runoff, we see that, rather than Australia being short of water, we have an abundance even if our population was to double or treble. Other than ground water, the only fresh water is run-off from precipitation. For mainland Australia the average annual run-off is 290,000,000 MLs per year, with another 50,000,000 MLs from Tasmania. From this vast amount we only use 2,800,000 MLs — less than one percent for all our municipal and industrial needs. We use another three to four percent for irrigation and other uses.
So statements (1) and (2) above are quite wrong. Rather than being short of water we are only using around 5% of our available surface supply. If we compare our precipitation per head of population with other countries we get more data supporting the fact that Australia has abundant water.
Australia 122 MLs.
Brazil 121 MLs.
USA 29 MLs.
China 11 MLs.
Japan 5.9 MLs.
In relation to claim (3) think of it this way: because Australia has only one major watershed, the Great Dividing Range, most of our run-off actually enters the sea between Adelaide and Cairns. This also happens to be where most of our population lives, and when we consider that run-off to the west of the Great Divide flows through the Murray-Darling Basin, which is our food bowl. The truth is that much of our usable water is right where we need it. However, to put this huge run-off to best advantage the future, diversions will be necessary from coastal discharge to dryer inland areas.
As for claim (4), in the Australian environment correctly sited, properly engineered and practically managed dams are always an enhancement of the environment and of the river ecology. Dams simply store water in times of excess flow to ensure continuing stream flow and water for all users, including the environment, in times of drought and even periods of no inflow. There is no environmental downside in conserving our water in structures that also generate cheap hydro power and provide wonderful recreational facilities. Sites ideal for this purpose are plentiful across our land and some of the more obvious I will detail later.
As our forefathers did, we must as a nation face up to some unshakeable truths that are at the foundation of our way of life and basis of our prosperity. After food and shelter, life’s two most basic inputs for individuals, families, industry and agriculture are water and power, and it is a prime responsibility of governments to ensure these mainstays of modern life are adequately provided at the lowest possible cost. These services should never be used as extortionate tax streams, as has become the case, now placed in the self-interested stewardship of monopolies motivated only by the opportunity to make usurious profits.
The present and worsening shortages of water, power and gas are the direct result of recent governments failing to meet their responsibilities as previous generations did. We must recognise that 40-odd years of acquiescence to green ideology has blinded this generation to what our forefathers so correctly identified. In 1825, when government surveyor George William Evans was on his second trip to the west, he noted in his journal:
Rivers such as these no man has ever seen before. Sometimes they are as salty as the ocean and at other times contain excellent drinking water. From my observations it is apparent that they can go from a chain of stagnant ponds to boiling over their banks, filling whole valleys with raging water.
As the pioneers settled what is the Murray Darling Basin the extremes and unreliability of the Australia climate became known and adaption to its vagaries recognised as essential. The need for water conservation to supply any permanent settlement west of the mountains was undisputed by the mid-nineteenth century, and in 1884 the first-ever Royal Commission in NSW was established to investigate the Conservation of Water and Irrigation. It was in an address to this Royal Commission that the NSW Surveyor General, Philip Francis Adams, first suggested diverting westward water from the Snowy and Eucumbene rivers. What followed the recommendations of the Royal Commission was 100 years of practical nation building development and conservation of our resources that made both man and nation.
The founding Fathers of our Nation saw the supply of water as so fundamental that they enshrined the people’s right to this resource in Section 100 of the Constitution which states.
The commonwealth shall not, by any law or regulation of trade or commerce, abridge the right of a State or the residents therein to the reasonable use of the waters of the rivers for conservation and irrigation.
Recent action by the Commonwealth in implementing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and similar water-rights exaction by the states are all in contravention of Section 100 and the root cause of present water shortages. These irrational policies became possible due to forty-plus years of Green dreaming. We must now convince the people that such shortages are unnecessary and unacceptable and, rather than present policy being good for ‘the environment,’ considerable harm is being done. The remains of aquatic fauna littering the dry Menindee Lakes are testimony to that.
Before any politician, party or government can successfully present a rational case for again developing and using our natural resources (by the construction of new dams and associated water conservation and hydro electricity generation), it will be essential to first educate the public that the falsehoods listed above are just that. Much of what has been claimed regarding water and dams and the production and distribution of power in Australia in recent years has been driven by an ignorant but rampant green ideology.
Our lack of capacity for rational decision-making in relation to our basic resources can be traced back to the Don Dunstan decision in 1970 to stop the building of the Chowilla Dam on the Murray River and then to delay the building of Dartmouth Dam on the Mitta Mitta. Then came Bob Brown’s campaign against the Franklin hydro scheme. Over the more than four decades that followed, while our population and water needs have more than doubled, we have done little to increase our water conservation and storage, other than building Wivenhoe Dam in Queensland.
To get truth into this debate we must repeat as often as becomes necessary that the settlement of Australia was largely based on the availability of water and most of our future needs can still be met by using the same sources. Acceptance of this fact refutes the obscene waste of money on “renewables” and desalination plants. Recurring water shortages have all been caused by the failure of governments to plan and invest for future needs — not because there was a shortage of water. History is going to be scathing of all involved in the decisions to waste taxpayer resources on mega-dollar desal projects and wind farms when those vast sums could have been better and more usefully devoted to dams and associated works capable of providing far greater benefits than those allegedly bestowed by these inefficient monuments to a gullible and irrational environmentalism.
The 12-year drought that ended with widespread flooding in 2010 coincided with the apogee of environmental extremism, whose giddy heights of dire prediction saw widespread and largely unchallenged acceptance of what might be called the Flannery Phallacy: that climate change would result in fewer floods, hotter summers and less rainfall; therefore, with less run-off, any new dams would be wasted money. Weather events since 2010 should have flushed these views into the sea of irrelevance, but goverments and bureaucracies are hard things to turn around and rent-seeking profiteers even moreso.
WHEN considering water conservation we should also be mindful of the capacity to improve flood mitigation by practical runoff control. Management of our river valleys (drainage systems) has to be an all-of-valley approach answering to one and only one management authority, certainly not the multiple bureaucracies now fighting for control of every bucket of water, mostly to tip it into the sea. Before making any decisions on dam and weir construction (and any other associated water infrastructure) we must have a clear understanding of what we are trying to achieve. While most dams have the potential to combine the outcomes of water conservation, flood mitigation and the production of clean hydro, it is generally not practical or economical to build large dams primarily for flood mitigation. Recent vivid images of the vast volumes of water pouring from whole-of-valley heavy rain events highlight the inadequacy of even huge dams preventing floods. For those with short memories or, worse, green-tinted imaginations, this was graphically demonstrated by Wivenhoe Dam in March 2011.
If we are serious about flood mitigation in any river valley, it must be planned as a whole-of-valley system which sees every creek and gully that delivers water to the main river (drainage channel) equipped with smaller permeable dams (check dams) that temporally hold the water in order to slowly release it back into the main river over a much longer period. These check dams need to be augmented by controlled weirs on the creeks delivering into one or several major dams on the main river, depending on the particular valley’s catchment size. This is what is needed on the Nepean River above Warragamba Dam, not the suggested wall extension. We need to stress that all of these proposed structures are ideal habitat for all aquatic species that are native to that area and rather than “messing with Nature,” we are enhancing Nature to the advantage of all “critters” including man.
Because each river valley is unique and most of man’s activities result in increased runoff, what happens in one part of the valley has the potential to adversely affect others, particularly those downstream. Therefore, all water conservation, flood mitigation and hydro power considerations must be holistic and specific to that valley. Visionary yet practical control of our abundant runoff starts by correcting land degradation caused by soil erosion and in doing so improves the ecology of the whole valley. More detail can be found here.
Unless we urgently begin implementing a nationwide plan of water conservation and power production our growth as a nation will cease. As of today, when we find ourselves at what experience says might be only the beginning of the latest prolonged drought, there is insufficient water for crop plantings across most of NSW and several rivers are dry. Most worrying is that, because of the need to use the Snowy Scheme for much longer periods to keep the lights on, the major storage, Eucumbene Dam, is under 25% of capacity and could be dry by May 2019 unless Mother Nature is very kind.
So how do we act on this now urgent issue? First by recognising that in general terms it is true to say that across Australia we have barely begun to harness and use water we have to the everlasting benefit of our citizens and the environment we share with all Creation’s creatures. As a starting point, governments need to urgently ensure that in all urban housing and industrial developments, the first question is: where are we going to store, and how are we going to use, the increased run-off? Our planning still does not address this must basic and important issue. Were that dereliction of responsibility to be addressed it would result in increased aquatic habitats and communities more in unity with our natural environment.
We then must implement the following agenda as a matter of urgency.
1. Immediately rescind the counter-productive and wasteful Murray-Darling Basin Plan and manage each valley as a separate entity embracing the actions below. All licenses to irrigate must be attached to land that can be irrigated and must be removed from speculators and government bureaucracies.
2. Correct forever the hyper salinity in the Coorong using uni-directional pipes under the sand dunes from the sea. Similarly, flush Lake Albert using this method. This would negate the wastage of very large volumes of fresh water being unsuccessfully used to keep the Murray mouth open. The expensive dredging that has been ongoing for years would no longer be necessary.
3. Build a lock and weir at Wellington, the real mouth of the Murray River, and return the lower lakes to an estuarine environment. These two actions would save over 3,000,000 MLs of fresh water annually and make it available for productive use.
4. Make additional fresh water available to all potential users around the lower lakes and increase the guaranteed water supply in the multi-state agreement for South Australia to at least 2,200,000 MLs per year.
5. Build the Lake Coolah-Stony Point storage in the Murrumbidgee Valley, increasing water availability to our food bowl by over 300,000 MLs per year.
6. Build several weirs on the Darling River and two dams on tributaries of the Darling, ensuring that this previously ephemeral waterway has permanent fresh water.
7. Build the Welcome Reef Dam on the Shoalhaven River for an annual yield of around 590,000 MLs, thus guaranteeing water for the greater Sydney area for the foreseeable future.
8. Build both flood control and water conservation infrastructure on the Mitchell River, guaranteeing Melbourne’s water supply and saving recurring flood clean-up costs.
9. Build the Upper Clarence Scheme as the first of many on the east Coast as a whole-of-valley exercise. This scheme would end destructive flooding, guarantee healthy river flow in all seasons, provide largely expanded irrigated agriculture in the Clarence valley, divert 1,200,000 MLs of extra water westwards into the Darling system and produce more cheap green hydro power that the Snowy Scheme.
10. Implement the Burdekin Basin scheme (often referred to as the Bradfield Scheme) which would involve increasing the present Lake Dalrymple capacity to 8,700,000 MLs and the construction of two new dams, considerably increasing agricultural production and guaranteeing permanent water supply for growing cities like Townsville. This scheme would also be the heart for greening the vast fertile but dry plains of central Queensland added to from other sources in the future.
11. Build a diversion dam on the Kiewa River to divert high flows into Hume Weir.
12. Build the Gateway Dam on the Upper Murray that was to have been built as part of the Snowy Scheme.
13. Build the Chowilla Dam on the Murray which would create one of the biggest areas of aquatic habitat and recreation areas in Australia. But importantly guarantee SA water availability in much greater volumes for the foreseeable future.
14. Commence the development of the vast water resources of the Fitzroy River Basin in Western Australia, with the option of sending some of this water to the SW where there is a water shortage.
15. Continue with whole-of-valley water management for most of our river valleys, thereby drought-proofing Australia forever.
While this list of researched and assessed water conservation and power production projects is not complete, what has been listed here would increase our water storage capacity by over 40,000,000 MLs with an annual yield of over 10,000,000 MLs — nearly double what we are presently using.
How do we pay for all of this? Simply and it will not cost the budget. We make Snowy Hydro the core asset of Infrastructure Australia Fund. This fund would issue bonds to Super funds and the like and use this money to construct these long lasting assets. All of the assets listed above generate income and it is from this income that the bonds would be repaid. This is how we paid for the Snowy Scheme.
However this will all amount to nought unless we also address the other great problem causing water shortages and over charging for what should be an abundant cheap resource.
Over regulation by multiple bureaucracies in three levels of Government must stop and the water in each valley administered by one Authority such as The Darling River Authority, or Murrumbidgee River Authority.
These Authorities would be legally bound to manage the water in their system on the following basis.
First priority: for available water at all times is maintenance of all of river flow in sufficient volume to supply all stock and domestic needs along with all Municipal requirements. This first priority would include any flushes to maintain water quality. In managing the quantum to be held in storage to meet this First Priority, at least two years supply of water must be accounted for in upstream storages, including delivery losses.
Second priority: Sufficient water for existing permanent plantings; that is high security licenses.
Third Priority: Only after First and Second priorities have been assured is consideration to be given to what percentages of licenses can be supplied to annual crop irrigators. This allows flexibility to efficiently use the highly variable flow volumes that are part of our river system.
Licenses to irrigate; must be attached to land that can be irrigated and traded within the valley to which they were issued.
With the exception of the 100 year old multi State Agreement guaranteeing South Australia’s water, all agreements previously entered into that give other authorities rights to water from other valleys and storages must be rescinded.
Filling of licensed off river storages must only be allowed from flows in excess of the above priorities. These privately owned storages have a place in the practical management of water in the system but need to be monitored to ensure water is only diverted after all other priorities have been met and when approved by valley authorities.
With just some vision but heaps of political will and some practical leadership we can do this and when we do there will be “Water, water everywhere” and all will have a drink.
Ron Pike is a water consultant and third-generation irrigation farmer