The current move by the Labor and Green parties, neither of which have any member representing electorates in the main catchment area, to amend the Murray Darling Plan and buy up water for the environment will not fix problems in the system because it will not fix the main problem, which is the separation of land and water titles by the federal government earlier in this century.
When this happened, land holders with financial problems or were about to retire, sold off their water rights to eager buyers, often merchant banks, foreign entities and speculators.
Water became a supply and demand commodity, reaching prices in times of drought that could only be afforded by producers of crops such as almonds and it resulted in traditional crops grown in irrigation areas being unprofitable.
Even in better seasons, the water market has reduced the profit margins and the result has been the decline of towns such as Coleambally in established irrigation areas, with the loss of amenities as people left town.
Water has also been traded up and down river systems and even between river systems. In essence, it is often people and companies far removed from an area who are profiting from the produce of these areas.
Surely if water rights were again tied to land tenure it would provide security to an area and would remove the speculators, some of whom only sold water during droughts when water prices were high.
If a previous government could separate land and water titles so easily at a time when the free market ideology was still in vogue, surely a current government should be able to restore the land/water tenure. It would even be an opportunity for our local federal member to create a permanent positive legacy for himself while still in opposition, if he pursued this cause.
Owners of these water rights could still trade water on a short-term basis of say, three years if they do not want to use the water on their land and at the same time owners of land where the water rights have been sold could buy back permanent water at a set price from a government entity.
The water holdings now held by merchant banks and other speculators could be bought back compulsorily by this government entity at a set price. The average price during the last three years before this year could be a reasonable yard stick, covering one drought year and two good seasons.
It would be desirable that there should be a limit to the amount of water per hectare that could be held, depending on the crops that could be grown in a particular area and the maximum water rights held by a single land owner should be restricted to prevent large corporates tying up most of the water in the catchment. So there would still be a role for water traders.
Finally, if the barrages on the lower lakes in South Australia hold the water one metre above sea level as I have read, then surely the undertaking that South Australia receive 450GL of water for the environment, which is not part of the actual Murray-Darling agreement, would not be required if the barrages were lowered by say, 35cm. Particularly if the swamps at the top of the Coorong that were originally a major source of fresh water for the Coorong were restored after being drained by a former prominent landholder.
All these actions may seem too hard, but if it restores the traditional irrigation areas and restores the river flows at the same time, it will be worth the effort. All it takes is the will and foresight.
John Mahon, Oura
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