No one is dismissing the economic importance of irrigation in the basin but it is clear that not enough is being done to protect the environment.
The Irrigation Council of Australia has claimed that the drought rather than its members are to blame. This is sophistry.
To be sure, like many environmental processes, the link between irrigation and the Menindee fish kill is complex. In a very severe drought, the river can dry out even without irrigation. But it is clear that too much irrigation cuts the flow of water down the rivers and that creates the hot, stagnant water where toxic algae breeds. The Menindee Lakes have run dry twice in the past four years.
When climate change is making droughts more frequent and drying out the land, the impact of irrigation will only become more dangerous.
Since the Howard government launched a National Water Initiative in 2007, bureaucratic doublespeak or when that fails outright theft and deception have thwarted plans to protect the basin. It has got worse since the Nationals, the allies of the irrigation lobby, took power both federally and in NSW.
The irrigation lobby bowdlerised scientific reports on water extraction targets and killed off the National Water Commission, the independent body supposed to set them. A Productivity Commission draft report last year said that the Murray Darling Basin Authority, which now manages the scheme for the government and ensures compliance, is conflicted.
The NSW government which has shared responsibility in the area has simply turned a blind eye when farmers with ties to the Nationals flouted the fairly modest targets that have been set for increased environmental flows. The Ombudsman has criticised the NSW Department of Primary Industry for gutting its enforcement department and telling inspectors not to cause trouble. The perception that a few huge irrigators with political connections have been allowed to rort the system has undermined faith in the whole exercise.
It is about good financial management as well as saving the environment. The federal government has paid about $5 billion to irrigators to build dams and other on-farm water efficiency measures on condition that they return water to the environment.
But the Productivity Commission report found that irrigators are having their cake and eatingit too. More than 4000 big irrigators have taken the cash, often worth hundreds of thousands of dollars per farm, but there is little auditing to see if there is any environmental benefit.
Incredibly, after a decade, in some parts of the river system almost three quarters of irrigators have not installed meters on pumps to measure how much water they are extracting.
Federal and state governments have thrown a veil of secrecy over the system. The federal government prevented the MDBA appearing before the SA government’s royal commission into water and NSW water officials gave false information to the ombudsman about their gutless enforcement.
Some progress has been made and there is at least a target for the whole basin due to take effect this year but it is not enough. The government must rethink the target for how much water must be reserved to protect the environment and irrigators must be forced to stop taking water if that target is under threat. That will require a rigorous and independent body to do the science, meters to measure all water extraction and a new body capable of much tougher enforcement.
The one positive from the video is that it was taken and posted not by city-based environmentalists but by local farmers. It raises hope that many farmers are ready to accept that, providing it is done fairly and efficiently, they must change their practices to protect the waterways and environment of their beautiful country.