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Issue #1584      March 6, 2013

Governments dump river rescue plans

The eastern state governments are cutting their contributions to the jointly-funded Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), thereby abandoning their responsibility to rescue the ailing Murray-Darling river system.

The Murray River, near the Alps at Towong, Victoria.

The Authority is responsible for the river system’s infrastructure, including the dams and weirs that control the river flow, but it also plans the long-term use of the rivers and improvement of the river environment.

The Authority’s initial draft plan for the Murray Darling Basin recommended severe cuts in the use of river water, and also made recommendations concerning subterranean ground water use and agricultural water storage.

This enraged the big irrigators and many members of farming communities, leading to ceremonial public burning of copies of the report. The NSW and Victorian governments also objected that the cuts were too severe. In contrast, the South Australian government complained, quite rightly, that the cuts would still not rescue Adelaide’s threatened water supply from the Murray River, which was blocked at its exit point because of inadequate flows.

The Gillard government retreated, disowning its own report, and the head of the Authority resigned in disgust. A new report was produced, which included recommendations for less severe cuts to water diversion than were needed to restore the river’s health. That still wasn’t good enough for the NSW or Victorian governments. They wanted greater diversion of river water, not less, especially for irrigation.

Last July the NSW government cut its funding for the Authority from $32 million to $12 million. That resulted in the cancellation of a native fish strategic plan and an audit of the health of the river system’s water, plants and fish. The South Australian government also reduced its contribution by $14.3 million.

The NSW government recently announced a further cut of $3.1 million in funding for the Authority. Craig Knowles, the Authority’s chairman, has pointed out that if other states cut their funding by a total of 50 percent, all programs beyond the maintenance of weirs and dams would have to be axed. If they followed the NSW example and cut their funding by 70 percent, even this minimal program would have to go.

Speaking on behalf of the Australian Conservation Foundation, healthy rivers campaigner Jonathan La Nauze said: “The recklessness of NSW in cutting funding to the MDBA set off a domino effect which still has some way to run. Any farmer knows you can’t run down your infrastructure and expect it to keep working. This is a problem which the states and the Commonwealth must fix as a matter of urgency.”

However, the state governments are unlikely to let the river infrastructure fall apart. They’re willing to pay for maintaining it, but they bitterly resent having to fund scientific reports that recommend benefits for the environment at the expense of profits.

Damning the Snowy

The Victorian and NSW governments have also abandoned any commitment to impartial scientific advice regarding the Snowy Mountains Scheme and its environment. Under federal legislation one of Victoria’s two representatives on the six-member Snowy Scientific Committee must represent Snowy Mountains environmental groups.

But this hasn’t happened. Last month John Gallard, chairman of community group the Snowy River Alliance declared: “So far the Victorian government has failed dismally to consult with the relevant Snowy Rivers interest groups, including the Snowy River Alliance, the Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation, Environment Victoria, the Australian Conservation Foundation, Gippsland Environment Group, and [the] Dalgety and District Community Organisation.”

Not to be outdone, the NSW government now wants the Snowy Scientific Committee to be replaced by a new advisory committee with “industry, community and industrial” representatives, and with funding from the electricity generator corporation Snowy Hydro Limited, not the state or federal governments.

Although Snowy Hydro is owned by the NSW, Victorian and federal governments, it’s a thoroughly commercial enterprise. In 1992 the NSW, Victorian and federal governments agreed to release 70 gigalitres of water per year to improve environmental flows, but as the Snowy River Alliance has pointed out, until October last year the corporation had only released 38 gigalitres.

Preservation of the river environment would be dumped in favour of profit maximisation if the NSW government proposal proceeds. Acacia Rose from the Snowy River Alliance commented: “ … this so-called advisory group won’t be independent from the interests of industry or government.” Greens MP John Kaye declared: “the [Snowy dam water] releases will not be timed to benefit the Snowy River but to maximise the profit-making activities of Snowy Hydro.”

Seven years ago, the federal, NSW and Victorian governments attempted to sell off their shares in Snowy Hydro, but public pressure forced the Howard regime into a hasty retreat and the scheme collapsed The Liberal/National state governments still want to privatise Snowy Hydro.

In October last year a report from Infrastructure NSW (the outfit of former Premier and privatisation spruiker Nick Greiner) recommended “an implementation strategy” for privatising water “distribution networks”. The NSW government later denied there was a plan to sell off the state’s share of the Snowy network. But will there be?

Saving water

The NSW government recently removed scientific advisors from the Sydney Water Catchment Authority. The government-owned corporation Sydney Water has also removed water efficiency rebates in order to increase its profitability.

The actions of the NSW and Victorian Liberal/National state governments demonstrate they serve the interests of the big agricultural companies, irrigators and industrial enterprises, even if that means giving them so much water that the native fish, birds, and animals from the Snowy river and the Murray/Darling river system continue to diminish in number or disappear altogether.

The refusal by the state governments to support the Murray-Darling Basin Authority clearly demonstrates that the federal government should take over the river system.

But that’s not enough. The state governments’ policies of running water institutions on a profit-maximisation basis clearly indicate that they are setting them up for privatisation.

If the Liberal/National Coalition takes power in September, the joint federal/ state conservative government alliance will undoubtedly attempt to hand over our crucial national water supply institutions to private interests.

And that must be prevented at all costs.   

Next article – Editorial – The discussion Australia should be having

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