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'buybacks' and their use to secure environmental flows - National ...

'buybacks' and their use to secure environmental flows - National ...

In the Murray Darling

In the Murray Darling Basin there are a large number of different requirements to protect environmental values. This reflects the broad range of environmental values associated with river systems. Environmental needs can be broadly categorised into two types: annual flows which provide a base flow to meet environmental needs and may also be used as a ‘flushing flow’ to prevent build up of nutrients within river ways. The second type of flow is aimed at recreating more natural seasonal patterns of flows by flow releases from storages to enhance natural floods, either increasing their peak or duration (often called “piggybacking” natural floods). The focus is on increasing the frequency of medium sized floods, as this is the category of floods that have been most severely affected by river regulation. Further, it is often impossible to affect the duration or peak of extremely large floods by releases from storages. For sites where piggybacking natural flood events is the objective, there may be significant variation in the amount of water required each year. For example, modelling in the 1990’s by the (then) Victorian Department of Natural Resources and the Environment (Allan and Lovett 1997) showed that there was little value in releasing the 100GL of water for the Barmah Millewa forests each year. Larger volumes were needed to raise the river high enough to flood the floodplain wetlands. Instead, it was decided that water would be accumulated each year until there was a sufficient quantity to “piggyback” on a natural flood event. In reality, the needs of environmental assets are diverse and complex. There are a large range of vegetation communities which make up the biodiversity values of river systems – from reeds and rushes in wetlands to River Red Gum Forests and Black Box communities (for example, see figure 6). Different vegetation communities require different flood frequencies, duration and timing. Figure 6: Vegetation communities found in Gunbower Forest Source: MDBC 2005, page 60 3.3 Comparison of demands for water from the irrigation and environment sectors Analysis of environmental demands has indicated two distinct types of demand: fixed quantities that are required annually and more variable quantities that would be used to piggyback natural flood events. For this reason, it is likely that no single entitlement type (and associated reliability profile) would suit the range of environmental demands. The focus in this study is on the more variable uncertain types of environmental demand. The extent to which demands between irrigation and the environment are countercyclical has important implications for the cost of obtaining water for the environment. All other things being equal, the greater the countercyclical nature of demands the lower the opportunity cost of sourcing water. Natural resource ‘buybacks’ and their use to secure environmental flows BDA Group 28

A range of market mechanisms could be used to meet environmental demands, from purchase of existing rights (either entitlement or allocation) to purchase of partial rights, such as the use of leasing arrangements and options contracts. Use of market mechanisms, a priori, has a number of advantages. These include (BDA Group 2003): • Greater choice and flexibility provided to both irrigators and environmental mangers; • Greater opportunity provided for participation by environmental interests; • Water sourcing achieved at lower cost and probably faster; • A much lower impact on regional irrigation communities than if water entitlements were permanently purchased; • Reduces the need for storing environmental allocations which may reduce storage space and therefore the reliability of irrigation allocations; and • Incentives are provided for innovation and efficiency improvements. This is not to say that using market mechanisms to obtain water for the environment is without its challenges. These include: • There are physical ‘bottlenecks’ in the river system which may make it difficult to get water to where it is required by the environment or may increase its cost; • Markets are still developing in the Murray Darling Basin, and one challenge is the large number of water entitlements that currently exist; • Third party issues associated with trading have not been comprehensively addressed within current water markets, including induced irrigation salinity associated with water trading and implications for infrastructure utilisation (the issue of ‘stranded assets’); and • For market approaches to work there needs to be enough participants to allow competition between sellers. If not, the costs of market approaches may outweigh the benefits gained from the market transactions. Natural resource ‘buybacks’ and their use to secure environmental flows BDA Group 29

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