Turnbull wants river sale cancelled

Don’t tell Bjorn Lomborg.

A huge water auction on the fragile Warrego River should be reviewed in light of a CSIRO report that says climate change and other factors could cut its flows by up to a third, says the federal Environment Minister, Malcolm Turnbull.

The Queensland Premier, Peter Beattie, plans to auction 8000 megalitres of water from Warrego this month despite protests from graziers and environmentalists in NSW who say the auction will affect their properties and harm wetlands south of the border.

Warrego, by the by, is way over here (click all of the images for bigger versions):

Warrego river map

I do love maps.

As with the Murray, below it, farmers downstream are upset – because they want the water. When they’re also in a different state, then there’s a problem (this sort of squabbling is basically a very micro example of what many expect to be the source of future wars. Fortunately no other country is downstream from Australia, but Israel and Jordan, Turkey and Syria? Problem.

Two interesting pieces to this story. One (Jason, you’ll love this) is the degree of uncertainty:

Mr Turnbull said the CSIRO report, whose authors considered the planned auction, showed that future water availability from the Warrego was unpredictable and could could drop by 30 per cent or increase 47 per cent.

The CSIRO’s best estimate was that climate change could reduce the frequency of flows that would travel over the border to NSW by about 7 per cent, he said.

Specifically, from the report:

CSIRO uncertainty tabulation

They also detail problems with their flow data:

CSIRO flow capture

Although the variance coming out of the modelling doesn’t look too too bad, uncertainy over climate conditions drive the final uncertainty over just what will happen. As per an ongoing argument I have with a colleague, the trouble here (and with environmental economics/climate change generally) is that we have different precautionary principles. Mine, for example, is at opposites to Bjorn Lomborg’s. Here I favour the federal approach; Queenslanders probably do not.

Secondly, there is the political element:

John Cobb, the federal Assistant Minister for Environment and Water Resources, called the auction “ridiculous”.

He was supported by the former deputy prime minister John Anderson who said it was “provocative” and “unhelpful”.

Mr Anderson’s electorate is home to many of the NSW graziers who would be affected by the auction. He conceded that it had been approved by the Prime Minister, John Howard, when Queensland agreed to be part of the $10 billion plan for the Murray-Darling basin, with which the Warrego is linked.

John Anderson is a member of the National party (non-Australians: the Liberals actually govern via a coalition of the Liberal party and the National party. Nationals are mostly rural representatives). What’s interesting, though, is that the Prime Minister approved the sale, even though his argument for nationalisation of the river systems was states over-allocating water to the detriment of other states downstream.

Hypocrisy, or the consequence of political horse-trading to get a policy implemented? Probably the latter. I doubt John Howard expected to be punished for it this quickly, though.

The final word:

The Queensland Minister for Natural Resources and Water, Craig Wallace, was adamant the auction would go ahead. He said the state’s water plan was sustainable. “Even when these water allocations are sold, 89 per cent of the Warrego River’s natural flow will still flow over the border to NSW,” he said.

I think I’ll take the word of our science organisation, which actually seems to understand the true value of a point-estimate (not much, in cases such as this), over Craig Wallace (as though it matters – can you believe the Queensland government never even asked me what I thought? Insensitive).

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