Environmental water incentive policy and return flows



[1] With increasing urban, industrial, and agricultural water demand and projected reduced supply under climate change, allocations to the environment are critically low in many arid and semiarid basins. Consequently, many governments are striving to augment environmental flows, often through market-oriented mechanisms that involve compensating irrigated agriculture, the largest water user in most basins, for reducing diversions. A widely documented challenge with policies to recover water for the environment arises because part of the water diversion reduction can form the basis for downstream consumptive water rights or environmental flows. This article gives an empirical comparison of two incentive policies to acquire water for environmental flows for a part of the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB), Australia. One policy consists of paying irrigators and water delivery firms to make capital and management investments that improve on-farm irrigation and water-conveyance; the other policy consists of having the government buy water from irrigators on the active MDB water market. The results show that the first option results in relatively larger return flow reduction, while the second option tends to induce significant irrigated land retirement with relatively large reductions in consumptive use and small reductions in return flow. In cases where irrigation losses result in little useful return flow (e.g., evaporative loss reduction or during drought in some instances), efficiency-improving investments may provide some cost-effective opportunities. Where a large portion of loss forms valuable return flow, it is difficult to make a case for the cost-effectiveness of policies involving payments for investments in irrigation and conveyance system upgrades.