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The fluctuating political appeal of water engineering in Australia

Lin R. Crase
La Trobe University, Wodonga, Australia l.crase@latrobe.edu.au
Suzanne M. O'€™Keefe
Regional School of Business, La Trobe University, Wodonga, Australia s.o'€™keefe@latrobe.edu.au
Brian E. Dollery
School of Business Economics and Public Policy, University of New England, New South Wales, Australia bdollery@une.edu.au

ABSTRACT: Like many nations, Australia has a mixed history with water engineering. For over a century the engineer was 'king' and water was harnessed as a vehicle for settling the harsh inland, creating wealth and building prosperity. By the 1960s it was becoming increasingly clear that this approach was not without its flaws. Mounting evidence of environmental degradation emerged in the 1970s and the trend towards fiscal responsibility in the 1980s subjected the engineering approach to even greater scrutiny. These events set the context for a series of water policy reforms that commenced in earnest in the early 1990s. Initially, the reforms favoured greater use of economic incentives and focussed attention on the ecological impacts of water management. In this environment, the status of the engineer was transformed from 'king' to 'servant'. However, the engineering profession was not to hold this status for long and the political difficulties of simultaneously dealing with the economics and ecology of water quickly became the rationale for reverting to engineering solutions. This paper traces these historical events and focusses specifically on the politically vexing issues that arise when water reallocation is attempted in a fully allocated basin.