New study criticises Water Efficiency Program

By Rodney Woods

Subsidised irrigators extracted up to 28 per cent more water than those who received no funds under the Federal Government's Water Efficiency Program, a new study has found.

Water management experts across disciplines from the University of New South Wales, the University of Adelaide, Australian National University and the Environmental Defenders Office examined the impact of taxpayer-funded irrigation infrastructure upgrades on water extractions and environmental water recovery in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Their findings, published in the international journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling, analysed almost 2500 on-farm basin irrigation surveys, with surveys in 2010-11 and 2015-16, identifying a “rebound effect” of increased water extractions, coinciding with the Federal Government’s investment in irrigation infrastructure upgrades that are being funded in an attempt to save enough water to reach the controversial 450 Gl.

“Our analysis over the past decade found that irrigators who received infrastructure grants actually increased their water extraction volumes by 21 to 28 per cent, compared to irrigators who received no subsidies,” lead author and resource economist Professor Sarah Wheeler, from the University of Adelaide, said.

Study co-author and environmental scientist Professor Richard Kingsford, director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science at UNSW Sydney, said the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was an ambitious initiative to solve the escalating problems the basin’s rivers faced, but the implementation of some government programs seemed to have the opposite effect of what they had intended.

“The ‘buyback’ of irrigation water has put water back into the rivers, but our research found the subsidised infrastructure program could be ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ by enabling more water extractions than water recovered through the efficiency program,” Prof Kingsford said.

Compounding the problem, the study used publicly available water data that suggested reductions in extractions from the basin — supposedly commensurate with increases in environmental flows — may have been overestimated, particularly in the northern basin.

The study also found that half of all irrigators surveyed agreed that the taxpayer-funded program for the irrigation infrastructure was "wasteful and inefficient" and there was further evidence the program favoured corporate agriculture, in terms of subsidy amount per entity, more than family farms.

The researchers recommend further basin water and rural policy actions to address these water governance challenges, including improved compliance, fines and regulation, and prioritising the cost-effectiveness of water recovered for the environment.

National Irrigators Council chief executive officer Steve Whan disagreed that more water was being extracted from the basin.

“The joint report talking about a so-called ‘rebound effect on water extraction’, makes a heroic leap from fact on individual farm water use, to unsubstantiated claim on overall basin wide water use,” Mr Whan said.

“The report is quite likely to be correct when it says farmers who have received infrastructure funding might have increased extraction relative to other farmers.

“That is because their properties are more efficient, and they will often increase production by buying water from another licence holder.

“It does not mean overall water use in the basin has gone up.

“Any report full of loaded words in its commentary, reveals the bias of its authors.”

Read the full research paper in Resources, Conservation and Recycling at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resconrec.2020.104755