Water management: A Super Bowl of a different kind

By Stefanie Schulte, New South Wales Irrigators’ Council

A visitor to the United States cannot fail to notice that Americans love their sports. Be it baseball, basketball, tennis, ice hockey or football – Americans ‘live and breathe’ their games. Back home in Australia there is no difference, just substitute cricket with baseball, field with ice hockey, and ‘Aussie rules’ football is a bit different to American football too, but let’s not get too technical. At the moment, it seems to be a particularly exciting time with the Super Bowl coming up on 1 February. Two teams battling for an action-packed 60 minutes with the aim to win a shiny trophy at the end, somehow reminds me a lot of the water management in Australia…

Switching off the tap for productive water user

Since Australia’s ‘millennium drought’, water management has taken a different turn. Extremely low precipitation, high temperatures (and a Federal election) enticed the then Prime Minister John Howard to introduce a AUD10 billion (USD 8.2 billion) national water management plan in 2007 with the words ‘the old ways of managing the Basin have reached their used-by-date’. The media and environmental groups spoke of degrading environmental health, poor water quality and a dying Murray Darling Basin and demanded that something needed to be done before the current trend became ‘irreversible’.

What came next was a long list of Federal and State legislation rewriting water management in Australia – at least in the Murray-Darling Basin. A key piece of legislation was the Federal Water Act in 2007, which kicked off a multitude of initiatives that removed productive water from agricultural production and transferred it to ‘the environment’ through water purchases and infrastructure funding programs. Needless to say, the Water Act 2007 effectively created new ‘rules of the game’ and the rules were certainly environmental.

Southern bell frog

Fish vs. Frogs

While the Seahawks and Patriots will battle out the super bowl championship on Sunday, the lineup in water management looks slightly different. We have agricultural producers and regional communities on the one hand, environmental groups and some urban communities on the other hand – however both ‘teams’ have vastly different motivations and goals.

It seems that every State has its own ‘Delta Smelt’ – in New South Wales it is just a large green, ground-dwelling tree frog called the ‘Southern Bell Frog’. This particular species is classified as endangered in the state of NSW and was claimed to be at the brink of extinction during the height of Australia’s millennium drought. It provided a perfect platform for environmental groups to ask for remove of nearly 5.5 million acre feet of water from agricultural production.

Removing large quantities of productive water to save a species and thereby restricting farmers’ and communities’ access to the most important resource for their agricultural production and survival– I feel I have heard this before… sounds an awful lot like the Delta Smelt case.

It seems to be irrelevant which side of the Pacific you are on – there are always two teams – those who want to use water for food and fibre production to feed a growing world population and those who want to pour it out to sea.

Millennium Water Management Planning

Admittedly, Rome was not build in a day but water management planning in Australia is soon approaching a decade. What started out as a 10-point plan and $10 billion dollar has transformed into complex and confusing framework that often does not achieve its ‘environmental’ objectives but leaves Australian rural agricultural producers and communities with significantly less productive water to grow food and fibre. The impact can be seen everywhere.

Compared to Australia, California seems to have just embarked on rewriting its water management in the state, however some of the changes are looking to cause significant economic upheaval – groundwater legislation comes to mind. If California is to learn from Australia’s experience then it is that good water management planning must come from the ‘bottom up’ with a clear goal, a solid business plan and comprehensive stakeholder engagement. This did not happen in Australia and therefore caused a lot of pain in regional communities.

While Seahawks and Patriots will be playing for the world championship on Sunday 1 February, the battle about water management on both sides of the Pacific will continue for many years to come.

Stefanie Schulte is the Policy Manager at the New South Wales Irrigators’ Council. The Council represents 12,000 water licence holders in NSW. Its members include valley water user associations, food and fibre producers, irrigation infrastructure operators and commodity groups. Visit: http://www.nswic.org.au/

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