Ian Cole, the scion of a late cotton baron, was in the lift of a hotel in Sydney’s Martin Place in early March when he heard a familiar voice approaching and held the door open.
“What are the odds?” asked Chris Brooks, an ex-grains trader and critic of the cotton industry, as he stepped in.
“That we’d bump into each other in Sydney?” Cole replied.
“No – that you’ll still be alive by the time we reach the ground,” Brooks recalls telling the prominent irrigator.
Cole, the son-in-law of American cotton pioneer Jack Buster, who opened up the northern Murray-Darling Basin to the crop in the mid-1960s, dismisses Brooks’ account as “bully-boy tactics” and things “he would have liked to have said”.
Either way, both Cole and Brooks seem destined to clash again, at least verbally. They champion two sides battling over the future of water in Australia’s most important food bowl – one banking on the market and the other politics and the courts to determine who wins and loses.
Those tensions will likely be tempered in the near term, as the Basin emerges from its worst-ever drought.
However, rapidly expanding perennial crops such as almonds are outbidding lower-value products such as dairy and rice in the water markets, upending industries and rural towns in the process.
And that’s before the bills for the Basin’s ongoing excessive extraction of water and climate change come due.
Certainly, widespread rains across the Basin have lately lifted spirits. Dams – including those that irrigate the giant cotton farms around St George in southern Queensland and along the Barwon-Darling in northern NSW – have been able to suck their fill from the suddenly rushing rivers.
Wetlands such as the Narran Lakes have started to live up to their description for the first time in years.
Driving across inland NSW and Victoria – COVID-19 restrictions permitting – visitors will see a far greener landscape than the dust bowl that would have greeted them just months ago.
“It’s what everyone needs … everyone can stop pointing the finger,” says Joe Robinson, owner of Darling Farms, a big cotton farm near Bourke that he bought from Cole in 2014. “When we’re pumping from the river, the environment’s doing well.”
Indeed, soil moisture has improved markedly. The Bureau of Meteorology is also forecasting a wetter-than-average winter to bring top-up rains and runoff to fill huge inland reservoirs still at less than 20 per cent full.
Sustained falls, though, are needed to erase the deep rainfall deficiencies over much of the Basin. Almost 90 per cent of NSW alone remains drought-affected or still in drought, that state’s government says.
Dry times or not, Cole says it’s a “great thing” markets now direct water to those willing to pay more. “If you want to grow a low-value crop, you’ve got a business problem,” he says as he drives beside a large irrigation channel.
“Is the government there to subsidise inefficient industries?” he asks. “I’d love to have a local dairy [in Bourke again], but it’d be a luxury.”
Brooks, chairman of the Southern Riverina Irrigators, is less enamoured with markets even though he made his fortune trading, cannily piloting his Aero Commander plane to observe the harvests below to give him a market edge.
Politicians have allowed unregulated expansion of cotton and other crops, particularly in the northern Basin, he says. The result is the Darling River increasingly ceases to reach the Murray, leaving the latter to carry the burden of meeting the yearly 1850-gigalitre entitlement of the downstream state of South Australia.
It has been especially galling for Brooks, who has had to watch the Murray flow bank-high past his farm near Tocumwal without being able to draw irrigation water for the past couple of seasons because of the drought.
And then there’s “irreparable damage” to the nearby river red gum forests and erosion at the Barmah Choke because the Murray is being run at its maximum level of 7 gigalitres a day through the naturally narrowed canal.
Brooks also blames “the demand downstream for almonds” that continues to grow, particularly in the Mallee.
The Herald and The Age this week revealed Brooks’ plan to create a political party to topple four Liberal-National Party MPs, including Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack and Environment Minister Sussan Ley.
And he’s using a litigation funder to launch a class action against the Murray Darling Basin Authority for “gross mismanagement”, with more legal moves ahead.
“We have to fight fire with fire,” he says.
The authority’s chief executive, Phillip Glyde, has sympathy for both warring camps. On the one hand, the rapid expansion of perennial crops like almonds has meant downstream regions such as Sunraysia “are going gangbusters”.
“The water market is driving more of the reform than the water recovery [to reduce water consumption] has over the last 10 years,” Glyde says.
However, the shift of thirsty crops – almond trees need seven years to reach maturity – downstream draw water and jobs away from established farming regions, including Shepparton in Victoria and the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area.
The treatment of one megalitre as equivalent value in water regardless of where it is traded from or the losses in seepage or evaporation to deliver it downstream are among the market features that short-change the environment, say ecologists such as Richard Kingsford from UNSW.
The market “drives the socio-economic dislocation, it drives the political resistance to further withdrawal of water from all over the Basin,” he says. “The markets are behaving entirely sensibly [but] is this a good thing for the country?”
The $13 billion Basin Plan to restore the region’s health is not working that well either.
For Indigenous leaders such as Monica Morgan, chief executive of the Yorta Yorta Nation Aboriginal Corporation, the 2001 pledge by a federal-state ministerial council for “a healthy river system, sustaining communities and preserving unique values” has largely been meaningless.
Mind you, massacres against her people by European colonisers moving into some of the most densely populated and well-watered parts of the continent would tend to diminish anyone’s confidence that promises matter.
“There were a lot of frontier wars here – our numbers were reduced to hundreds out of thousands,” Morgan says, pointing out “escape places” among the Moira Lakes where she says survivors sought refuge.
Her battle is not only to secure title over Cummeragunja land but the rights of the Murray itself.
“The whole river is an environmental flow,” Morgan says, adding that without regular overbank flooding “50 to 100 years there will be no river red gum forests”.
Also not inspiring confidence are mistakes made when agencies have intervened to save those forests.
Downstream from the Narrows, governments earmarked $57 million to ensure Australia’s second-biggest red gum forests at Koondrook-Perricoota would get the necessary regular floods to retain their biodiverse health.
The resulting structures, says Jamie Pittock, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, were a “dream of engineers”, built much bigger than required and then unable to be used as designed because of planning flaws.
“It’s a shocker, you can barely operate it,” Pittock says. “It’s an outrageous amount of taxpayers’ money to get the intended returns” and should be the subject of an auditor-general’s probe.
David McConnell, a farmer who runs sheep and grows rice on a nearby property, has grown increasingly alarmed as the 42-kilometre embankment with its large gates neared completion without securing agreement from surrounding property owners. The tab, meanwhile, has risen to about $120 million, with millions more needed.
“We almost had a suitable watering without needing those structures at all,” says McConnell, chairman of the Koondrook-Perricoota Alliance which combines farmers, Indigenous and other local stakeholders.
As it is, without securing landholders’ approval, the project can only release water at the rate of 250 megalitres a day, or about a tenth of what is needed to prevent waterlogging and killing off black box and other species less flood-tolerant than river red gums in the event of a decent flooding.
“You’ll turn it into a total monoculture,” McConnell says, which would undermine the reasons for preserving it in the first place.
Glyde says the project “has been actively used twice, including during a successful flow event throughout the Murray River late last year”.
“The [authority] is supporting environmental water holders, landowners and NSW forest managers to continue to seek a workable arrangement for the ongoing use of the Koondrook-Perricoota infrastructure for the health of this important river ecosystem,” he says.
Of more concern for Glyde, though, is progress on the 36 so-called Sustainable Diversion Limit adjustment projects that have already been counted as saving 605 gigalitres a year of the 2750-gigalitre Basin Plan total, even though the biggest ones are still only in the planning stages.
“We’re getting worried they won’t be completed by 2024,” he says, citing the Menindee Lakes diversion project among the big ones that “are still well behind”.
The planned “reconciliation” in 2024 – which could include a required buying back of water licences by the Commonwealth to make up for any shortfall in meeting environmental targets – is only one of the looming Basin issues.
By the end of June, for instance, the NSW government is supposed to submit for authority approval water resource plans that the Commonwealth Environment Water Holder says are unlikely to comply with the Basin Plan, particularly on the rights of farmers to capture floods that flow over their land.
“There isn’t a magic pudding – the water’s got to come from somewhere,” ecologist Kingsford says. “Nobody has really thought about the ecology here.”