Nearly 2,000 gigalitres of water were used for cotton crops in the northern Murray-Darling Basin, while less than 11 gigalitres made it as far as Wilcannia, where residents have no access to drinking water, according to new research released by The Australia Institute.
Critically, no water reached Menindee, the site of the summer fish kills earlier this year.
“The public is told that annual crops like cotton are good for the Basin because if there’s no water, they aren’t planted,” said Maryanne Slattery, Senior Water Researcher at The Australia Institute.
“But data shows that is not true. Four of the top 11 cotton crops were in years when virtually no water flowed past Bourke.
Ms Slattery went on to criticise the policy framework around the flows, describing how the Barwon-Darling/Barka River is actually in ‘debt’ to irrigators, owing them water that it does not currently have.
“Despite years of unsustainable extraction, bad policy means the Barwon-Darling/Barka River is actually in ‘debt’ to irrigators to the tune of 635 gigalitres,” said Bill Johnson, Professional Associate with the University of Canberra and co-author.
“When the water isn’t in the river, the amount owed to irrigation keeps accruing. The river is underwriting the risk of water security for the irrigation sector.”
“The Barwon-Darling/Barka River will only return to health if fundamental changes are made to its system of management. While the rules governing the river’s use are under review, serious reform can only be undertaken if all stakeholders come together and have an honest and calm discussion, without recriminations, about what is an isn’t working.
“It is our fear that the NSW Government’s upcoming Water Resource Plan, in conjunction with the failing Murray Darling Basin Plan, will not fix this broken system.