Australia Institute 'Cottons On' To Northern Basin Water Over-Allocations

15 March 2019

A new report from The Australia Institute, “Owing down the river”, has shone a ‘spotlight of truth’ on Australia’s cotton industry.

The Institute’s paper is an absolute ‘must read’ for anyone who wants an understanding of what’s actually happening in the northern Basin”, said Centre Alliance Senator Rex Patrick.

“In February I introduced a bill into the Senate to ban the export of cotton. My objective has been to open up debate on the impact of cotton production on the health of the Murray-Darling river system. Cotton is a water intensive crop which is grown and then simply exported. Exporting cotton is like exporting water which, noting Australians live on the driest inhabited continent on the planet, is not in the national interest,” said Rex.

“This new paper contributes to the discussion and will no doubt become a seminal piece in the debate,” Rex said. “It’s a fact based rebuttal to National Party politicians and industry lobbies such as Cotton Australia and the National Farmers Federation who have tried to shout down the Murray-Darling Royal Commissioner, the Australian Academy of Science and Centre Alliance’s Bill.”

The report states: “... as cotton uses around 80% of irrigation water in the northern Basin, it is impossible to discuss the northern Basin without discussing cotton”. It then goes on to spell out some hard cotton truths:

  • Despite the current drought, with record low rainfall and record high temperatures in parts of the Basin, over 100,000 hectares of irrigated cotton has been planted in the northern Basin. While down by almost half on last year’s crop, 1.2 million bales will be produced - still a substantial crop by historical standards.
  • Between 845 and 1,135 GL of water will be applied to this crop while, for the 2018 calendar year, only 40 GL flowed past Bourke and 11.6 GL flowed to Wilcannia
  • A further 1000 GL likely evaporated in farm storage before irrigation use (the hugely controversial and high risk Menindee Lakes project is being undertaken to purportedly save a much smaller 93 GL in evaporation)
  • NSW water rules allow farmers to carry over their water entitlements to future years, meaning the river actually owes the irrigators a ‘debt’. The river does not have the water to pay back that debt.
  • While cotton is an annual crop, cotton businesses don’t work on a one year time frame.
  • Four of the top eleven years for cotton production occurred when flows at Bourke were less than half of the median level.
  • While water availability is highly variable, cotton production can be remarkably consistent.

“The current arrangements are untenable,” said Rex. “Massive cotton production, broken water rules, returning 70 GL to irrigators after the Northern Basin Review, the use of poor climate change data in the original plan, flood plain harvesting - it’s a toxic river cocktail that has left towns without drinking water, mass fish kills, dying river beds along with desperate and dying wildlife”.

”Something has to change. If the Australian Government does not lead real and substantive reforms to water management as recommended by the Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission, cotton will kill our rivers.”

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