Water buybacks were blamed for 3261 FTE job losses across the economies of 40 southern Murray-Darling Basin communities, according to Murray-Darling Basin Authority modelling.
The true extent of job losses attributed to water recovery for the environment is buried in MDBA’s community profiles released in 2018 as separate files, but never collated until now.
“The MDBA’s own socioeconomic modelling shows less water for farmers means fewer jobs in regional economies,” said NSWIC CEO, Claire Miller.
“It’s not just the farmer, but the whole community that feels the impact, with the ripple effects flowing down the main street to local businesses and service industries.
The collated data, published in a new report by the NSW Irrigators’ Council (NSWIC), shows that 3261, or 30%, of the net 10,801.5 FTE jobs lost from 2001 to 2016 were directly attributed to water recovery for the environment through direct and indirect buybacks.
Across the southern Basin States, 648 lost jobs (21% of FTE jobs losses) in the profiled NSW communities profiled were attributed to water recovery, 1684 (30%) in northern Victoria and 929 (45%) in South Australia, mostly in its Riverland horticultural centres.
“These were not just farm jobs, but jobs lost across these regional economies,” said Ms Miller.
“It shows that, contrary to what some decision-makers and others claim, jobs lost due to water recovery are not completely offset by jobs growth in other sectors.
“Many jobs lost due to water recovery were in small communities where every job matters to keep people in town, and keep schools, shops, the pub and sports clubs open.”
In NSW, for example, Wakool was hit hard with 38% of its FTE job losses attributed to the recovery of 97.9 billion litres (gigalitres, or GL) of water recovery from that area.
The profiles model the impacts of water recovered via buybacks and water efficiency projects that require farmers to transfer entitlement to the Government in return for funding. Most water recovery occurred pre-emptively from 2008 to 2012 during the Basin Plan’s development.
The analysis show that in 11 communities, more than 24% of their water entitlement was recovered for the environment. Between 20 and 24% was recovered in another six.
“Just because buybacks are voluntary, that doesn’t mean everything is ok – we need to look beyond just the farm gate to the broader impacts on communities,” Ms Miller said.
“It’s often the most socio-economically disadvantaged communities that are hit the hardest.
The NSWIC report also points to a 2012 survey commissioned by the Federal Government that found 60% of sellers in 2008-2012 sold water entitlement under duress to generate cashflow, mostly to reduce debt or increase farm viability.
The 2008-2012 open buyback tenders coincided with the Millennium Drought and fallout from the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.
Only 7% of those surveyed sold water entitlement to raise capital for on-farm investment, and only 10% sold what they considered to be entitlements surplus to their need.
Under the Basin Plan and pre-Plan reforms, 2107 GL and 875 GL of water respectively have been recovered for the environment. That translates to 1 in 3 litres of irrigation water now redirected to the environment, on top of the bulk of inflows.
Total diversions (for agriculture, town water supply, and other industries) in the Basin are now just 28% of inflows, well within international standards.
“It is disappointing that the MDBA never collated its own data – without this kind of analysis, the Federal Government may unwittingly recover more water out of communities already hit the hardest by water recovery in the past,” said Ms Miller
“The Basin Plan is working – the water recovered so far is building up ecosystem resilience in droughts and meeting the Basin Plan’s KPIs for the lower lakes.
“But less water at higher prices for growing food and fibre has cost communities jobs and weakened their resilience to survive droughts.
“If governments are not careful, we’ll end up with ghost towns, and only escalate the serious social issues facing many of these communities.
“There are other ways, beyond more buybacks, to continue to improve the health of the Basin’s rivers, wetlands and floodplains.
“We urge all Basin States to work together with all options on the table.”
 Cheesman M & Wheeler S 2012, Survey of water sellers to the Restoring the Balance program, report for Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities