AAP FactCheck

Restoring confidence in public statements by independently testing and verifying the facts

Are water savings from the Murray-Darling disappearing into thin air in South Australia?

By Louise Evans, James Lane & Tiffanie Turnbull

The Statement

“They’re [South Australia] evaporating 900 gigalitres per year. That’s basically half the amount they’ve [the Murray-Darling Basin Authority] bought back in water rights.”

NSW upper house Liberal Democrat candidate David Leyonhjelm. March 20, 2019.

The Analysis

NSW upper house Liberal Democrat candidate David Leyonhjelm claims the problem with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan [MDBP] is South Australia, which has “got the rest of the country by the delicate bits”. He claims SA is being “indulgent” by raising the level of Lake Alexandrina for a regatta when 900 gigalitres evaporates from the lake system annually. [1]

AAP FactCheck examined Mr Leyonhjelm’s claims 900GL of water evaporates in South Australia and 900GL is about half the amount the Murray-Darling Basin Authority [MDBA] has bought back in water rights to help restore the river system to sustainable, healthy levels.

In January, 2019 Mr Leyonhjelm said he was disturbed that 900GL of water “taken from productive agriculture in Victoria and NSW” evaporated annually in Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert in South Australia. "If these lakes were allowed to remain open to the sea and subject to tidal influences, rather than being kept closed by man-made barrages, seawater could evaporate rather than precious fresh water." [2]

In his former role as a federal senator for NSW, Mr Leyonhjelm chaired a 2015-2016 senate inquiry into the MDBP which was signed into law by ‘basin states’ in 2012, to redress over-allocation of water and restore the river to sustainable, healthy levels. The basin states are Queensland, NSW, ACT, Victoria and South Australia. [3]

The senate inquiry found that the loss of irrigation water through the MDBP was crippling rural communities. [4]

Water rights were elevated as a NSW election issue after a South Australian royal commission into the management of the MDBP in January 2019 recommended a complete overhaul. [5]

The NSW government argues that overhauling the plan as recommended by the South Australian royal commission will further damage the state's regional communities. [6]

Mr Leyonhjelm’s office told AAP FactCheck the 900GL evaporation figure he quoted came from a 2012 Australian Environment Foundation (AEF) report.

The 2012 AEF report said: "Upstream river regulation has not affected the positive hydrodynamic status of Lake Alexandrina. Annual evaporation from the lake system is between 878 and 1083 gigalitres, which is a very large volume of water, but significantly less than average inflows of nearly 6000 gigalitres." [7]

Lake Alexandrina is located on the SA coast about 70km south-east of Adelaide. Together with the nearby Lake Albert and a lagoon called The Coorong, it forms the mouth of the Murray River. The lake system is fully contained within SA borders and measures about 37km long and 21km wide. [8]

Mr Leyonhjelm’s office told AAP FactCheck he arrived at his figure of 900GL by taking “the lower end” of the evaporation rate of between 878GL and 1083GL quoted in the AEF 2012 report.

Based on this evidence AAP FactCheck found Mr Leyonhjelm’s claim that 900GL is evaporated in South Australia is mostly true as it is at the lower end of the published figure of 878GL and 1083GL.

The MDBP seeks from July 2019 to reduce the amount of water taken from the basin each year by 2750GL. Under the plan the water is returned through “buybacks” of water licences and via government-funded infrastructure improvements to increase water savings. [9]

As of November 2018, the MDBA estimated it had recovered 2118GL through water licences or savings, still 632GL short of its target. [10]

AAP FactCheck found Mr Leyonhjelm's claim that his quoted figure of 900GL is about half of the 2118GL the MDBA has been able to buy back is mostly true, as the recovered water was achieved through a combination of measures, not solely through water licence ‘buybacks’.

The Verdict

  • Mostly True - Mostly accurate, but there is a minor error or problem.

The References

1: NSW People’s Forum. Sky News. March 20, 2019: https://twitter.com/SkyNewsAust/status/1108322411806507008

2: ‘The Murray-Darling and Australia’s great river of nonsense’. The Australian Financial Review, by David Leyonhjelm. January 17, 2019: https://www.afr.com/news/economy/australias-great-river-of-nonsense-20190117-h1a5ro

3: ‘What is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and why are we still talking about it?’. By Anna Vidot. ABC. January 18, 2019: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-11-21/what-is-the-murray-darling-basin-plan/8043180

4: ‘Parliament of Australia. Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Refreshing the plan’. March 17, 2016: https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Murray_Darling_Basin_Plan/murraydarling/Report/b03

5: ‘Murray-Darling authority acted unlawfully’. AAP/SBS. January 31, 2019: https://www.sbs.com.au/news/murray-darling-authority-acted-unlawfully

6: ‘NSW govt says Murray report ‘hit and miss’. AAP/SBS. February 1, 2019: https://www.sbs.com.au/news/nsw-govt-says-murray-report-hit-and-miss

7: ‘Plugging the Murray’s mouth: The interrupted evolution of a barrier estuary’. By Jennifer Marohasy. Australian Environment Foundation. February 2012: http://jennifermarohasy.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Plugging-the-Murray-Rivers-Mouth-FINAL-ver4.pdf

8: ‘Lake Alexandrina’. Encyclopaedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/place/Lake-Alexandrina

9: ‘What is the Murray–Darling Basin Plan?’. Murray-Darling Basin Authority: https://www.mdba.gov.au/sites/default/files/pubs/What-is-the-Murray-Darling-Basin-Plan_0.pdf

10: ‘Basin environmental watering outlook for 2019–20’. Murray-Darling Basin Authority. February 2019: https://www.mdba.gov.au/sites/default/files/pubs/Basin-environmental-watering-outlook-2019-2020.pdf

Revision History

  • First published March 22, 2019 16:11 AEDT