Taxpayer dollars, secretive deals and the lucrative business of water on FOUR CORNERS

Four Corners
Source: ABC

FOUR CORNERS: CASH SPLASH TAXPAYER DOLLARS, SECRETIVE DEALS & THE LUCRATIVE BUSINESS OF WATER

“It’s a national scandal.”  Water economist

Two years on from the Four Corners investigation into water theft in the Murray-Darling Basin that sparked a royal commission, the program returns to the river system to investigate new concerns about how the plan to rescue it is being carried out.

“How extravagant is this scheme?... I'd just call it a rort.”  Lawyer

On Monday Four Corners investigates whether the contentious plan has become a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money.

“The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is a triple bottom line fail. It’s a fail for communities, it’s a fail for the economy and it’s absolutely a fail for the environment.”  Business owner

The river system is the lifeblood of Australian agriculture but right now it’s in crisis. It’s experiencing one of the worst droughts on record, and with mass fish deaths capturing the headlines and farmers struggling to survive, many are saying the scheme is failing to deliver.

“I would characterise it as pink batts for farmers, or pink batts for earth movers. It all had to happen in a short space of time.”  Contractor

Billions of taxpayers’ dollars are being poured into grants handed to irrigators in an attempt to save more water. Four Corners investigates exactly how the money is being spent.

“I'm a taxpayer. I don't agree with the scheme. I think it's actually too expensive.”  Farmer

Some irrigators say this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to transform their businesses.

“With a bold initiative, having the basin plan and the government investing in irrigated agriculture, you get an opportunity to basically reset… for the next 50 years.”  Irrigation CEO

Others question who is actually gaining the most from the generous scheme.

“We’re degrading the rivers at the same time as we’re handing out money to a few individuals to realise huge economic gains at public cost.”  Ecologist

For those with access to water, there are lucrative sales to be made.   Water prices have hit record highs turning it into liquid gold.

“Anyone can come in and buy water. You don't even have to be a farmer…You're going to make money out of it, and that's what a lot of people are doing, unfortunately.”  Farmer

Others worry that the scheme is encouraging the planting of crops even thirstier than cotton, creating a potential time bomb.

“There's been an explosion in the production of nuts in the Murrumbidgee, and more broadly in the Murray–Darling Basin...This may well be a time bomb.” Former water official

Four Corners investigates how the scheme is being regulated and whether water users and the authorities responsible are being properly held to account.

“We’re talking about billions of dollars in taxpayers’ money on a scheme that many, many capable and reliable scientists have said, this isn’t going to work.”  Lawyer

It is replayed on Tuesday 9th July at 1.00pm and Wednesday 10th at 11.20pm. It can also be seen on ABC NEWS channel on Saturday at 8.10pm AEST, ABC iview and at abc.net.au/4corners.

Cash Splash, reported by Sean Rubinsztein-Dunlop, goes to air on Monday 8th July at 8.30pm.