Huge extraction of water from the Darling River in northern NSW, and not the current drought, is the main reason for the "appalling catastrophe" that has befallen the Murray Darling Basin, according to an ANU economist who spoke in Cootamundra on Monday.
Professor Quentin Grafton, professor of economics at the Crawford School of Public Policy, attracted an audience of 30 to the Central Hotel for the third in the successful new Politics in the Pub series, which is living up to its professed aim of giving people a chance to discuss important issues "outside the election cycle".
Professor Grafton said that while drought is a contributing factor, it is more about how water is being managed in the Murray Darling Basin, and in particular about the huge amounts that are being extracted for irrigation in northern NSW.
"The Natural Resources Commission, which provides independent advice to the NSW government, came to the very clear conclusion in its report released just last week that the principal reason for the low flows in the lower Darling is too much extraction upstream," he said.
"In northern NSW just ten licence holders are extracting 86% of the water out of the Barwon Darling, and just four of them are extracting 70%.
"What matters is not so much who they are, but how much they are extracting, and the fact that they are doing so legally.
"There are individuals who have been found to have committed criminal acts, and there will some more bad applies I've no doubt.
"But the point is not water theft, it's that a lot of the water extraction on the Barwon Darling is being done legally under the water sharing plan that was instituted in June 2012 and keeps on going until the end of 2023.
"So it's several years more to come and the question is how are they allowed to continue like that, given the challenges that are going on in the system?
"Those people clearly have licences, and influence.
"Who is calling the shots?
"It certainly isn't the people in Wilcannia."
Professor Grafton said the Basin was "hurting, and when I say that I'm talking about the people and not just about some frogs - much as I value the frogs, we're talking about people.
"The only way to describe what's happening at the Murray mouth is it's a catastrophe.
"Some people will tell you this is all about the drought - or the river's to blame - but I'm saying it's both the drought and the way we're managing the water that's causing a whole heap of problems.
"If we know we have droughts, and of course we do, then we've got to manage for droughts. It's not something like 'oh gosh, what a surprise, we can't manage because we've got a drought'.
"Well hang on, did we have a drought in the millennium period, that ended in 2010, yes we did, we've had droughts before - we've got to manage the water we have during a drought, and if we fail when there's a drought, then we fail water management."
Asked about anomalies such as the trading of water entitlements along an essentially dry watercourse such as Muttuma Creek, Professor Grafton said there was a dire need for a system of water accounting to be introduced, just like audited financial accounts needed for a business.
"We don't have, in a comprehensive way, water accounting that gives us proper measurements of water consumption, and if we don't have that - double entry accounting - then all sorts of tricks that can be played.
"If someone is going to get more water, someone has to get less water - that's how it works."