22 Sustainability for the rivers of the Lake Eyre Basin 231 The debate about sustainability has become nuanced by discussions about small-scale versus large-scale irrigation, leading to the misguided assumption that ‘small is good but large is bad’. Any diversion of water, big or small, impacts on the people who depend on these rivers Aboriginal communities (see Chapters 8 and 9), long-term residents with deep connections to the river (see Chapter 12), those whose livelihoods depend on well-managed floodplain grazing (see Chapters 10 and 11) and others involved in tourism (see Chapter 13). The environment is also particularly sensitive to water diversions, with predictable negative impacts on native fish (see Chapters 3 and 4), turtles (see Chapter 5), terrestrial animals (see Chapter 6) and the many other forms of life (see Chapter 1). Simply, some part of the environment and people will always be affected when we develop the water resources of a river. Three factors are clear in the ongoing discussion about water resource development. First, the environmental impacts are always underestimated because they occur over an entire river system and take decades to manifest (Kingsford 1999 Kingsford et al. 2011). Second, no governments have adequately been able to regulate water resource development, once started. The most recent example is runaway overdevelopment of the Condamine– Balonne river system in the Murray–Darling Basin (see Chapter 21), wreaking immeasurable social and environmental impacts (see Chapters 14 and 15). Indeed, many rivers in the Murray–Darling Basin exhibit a similar trajectory, where governments have failed to adequately manage development and prevent widespread environmental degradation (Kingsford et al. 2015). Finally, the economic costs of such development are rarely transparent. More often than not, private gain is underpinned by public cost. For example, governments often invest taxes in expensive dam construction (Kingsford 1999). Users of this water pay a licence fee, meant to cover costs of delivery, but it does not cover the capital or maintenance costs of infrastructure. As a consequence, a high proportion of the cost of ‘running’ the rivers (e.g. policies, water delivery, monitoring and restoration costs) is borne by government and communities, and is seldom accounted for. Restoration activities are particularly expensive. For example, Australian Government investment in the rehabilitation of the Murray–Darling Basin will cost Australian taxpayers more than $13 billion, and even this poorly accounts for substantial use and non-use economic values of the environment (see Chapter 18). History shows that water development challenges lie ahead for achieving sustainability of the rivers of the Lake Eyre Basin. Twice, governments in Queensland have tried to stimulate or ‘open up’ the rivers for major water resource development (see Chapter 17). The legacy of the first attempt in 1995 persists in ‘sleeper’ (i.e. not activated) licences in both the Cooper Creek and the Georgina–Diamantina River catchments (see Chapter 20). Governments have tried to buy back the relatively large (10 000 ML total) licences in the Cooper Creek catchment, mostly near Windorah, but owners have resisted, presumably because of speculative economic value. Actual economic value is difficult to determine, given the absence of a market, inviting inevitable and inequitable comparison with active irrigation licences in the Murray–Darling Basin. For example, a 1000 ML general security licence in the northern Murray–Darling Basin varied in value in 2016 from $1 million (Macquarie) to $2.1 million (New South Wales Border Rivers) (Marsden Jacobs Associates 2016). However, water supply is more dependable and primarily regulated by large dams in the Murray–
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