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Issue #1813      March 7, 2018

Murray-Darling

No time to waste

The whole of Australia’s river system is threatened.

After decades of abuse the land and the river that nourishes are signalling yet another warning. Water theft is perpetrated with impunity. The blue-green algae that periodically spreads over Australia’s river system sets some alarm bells ringing in government offices.

The algae is an effect, the result of phosphorous and nitrogen contamination from fertiliser. The cause runs much deeper.

If you travel through the rich black soil plains of north-west NSW the most noticeable thing about the landscape is that it is almost completely cleared of bush. Sometimes only a few trees can be seen to the horizon, with this bareness emphasised in times of drought.

Cotton growing is a glaring example of the connections that tie rural communities, rural workers and the use and abuse of the environment.

Excess water usage, mainly by cotton growers, has had a devastating effect on the inland river systems and has worsened the bad drought conditions in much of NSW and Queensland.

On February 5, the Murray-Darling Declaration was signed by 12 leading experts on the Basin.

The Declaration is about how to fix what is going wrong in the Murray-Darling Basin. The signatories emphasise that the statement is not about politics or playing the “blame game”. They have come together to make the Declaration to highlight their real concerns and to offer solutions and make clear there is no time to waste. The Basin remains in a poor state. While there have been improvements in specific sites, these have not resulted in measurable improvements in key environmental indicators on a basin scale.

As of February 2018, some $4 billion has been spent on water recovery infrastructure projects, but for many of these projects there is no scientific evidence that they have actually increased net stream flows, which was a key goal of water reform. Despite allocating half a billion dollars in 2007 to upgrade water meters in the Basin, as much as 75 percent of all surface water diversions in the northern part of the Basin may still not have water meters.

Many aspects of water reform need to change, but three steps are necessary to fully deliver on the key objects of the Water Act (2007).

These are:

  1. Stop any further expenditures on subsidies or grants for irrigation infrastructure in the Basin until there is an independent, scientific and economic audit of what $4 billion delivered in volumes of water and outcomes;
  2. Audit all Basin water recovery and planned Sustainable Diversion Limit (SDL) Adjustments including details of environmental water recovered, expenditures and actual environmental outcomes, especially in terms of stream flows at all special environmental assets, including the Murray Mouth and;
  3. Establish an independent and expert, scientific advisory body to monitor, measure and to guide all governments to ensure the full achievement of key objects of the Water Act (2007), namely, (a) to ensure the return to environmentally sustainable levels of extraction for water resources that are over-allocated or overused; and (b) to protect, restore and provide for the ecological values and ecosystem services of the Murray-Darling Basin.

“There is no time to waste for the Basin, its rivers, environments, traditional owners and communities. Our Declaration makes it clear what must be done.”

The Declaration

We, the undersigned, call for:

One: A halt to all publicly-funded water recovery associated with irrigation infrastructure subsidies/grants in the Murray-Darling Basin, until a comprehensive and independent audit of Basin water recovery is published;

Two: A publicly available, comprehensive and independent economic and scientific audit of all completed Basin water recovery and a full scientific review of planned Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustments including details of environmental water recovered, expenditures and actual environmental outcomes (to date and projected), especially the effects on Basin stream flows, including at the Murray Mouth, and on floodplain inundation; and

Three: An adequately funded, expert, scientific and independent body to monitor, measure and give advice about delivery of the Water Act (2007) including: spatial and temporal hydrological and environmental changes in the Basin; comprehensive economic and scientific audits of the costs, benefits and outcomes of the Basin Plan and water recovery; river-scale assessments of effectiveness of measured water use from rivers and on floodplains; and evaluations of the adequacy of State river management and regulation to fully deliver the Water Act (2007).

Unless the Australian and State governments fully deliver on the key objects of the Water Act (2007), the Basin’s aquatic environments will remain impaired and billions of public money risks being spent without leading to the long-term sustainability of either irrigation or the environment and the support needed for key social-cultural values.

What is the Basin Plan?

The Murray-Darling Basin drains one-seventh of the Australian continent, and represents one-third of its agricultural production.

It is home to more than two million people and 16 Ramsar-listed wetlands.

It is more than 2,500 kilometres long, on one of the driest continents in the world.

Trying to balance all of those sometimes-competing priorities makes Murray-Darling water sharing one of the most divisive and complicated policy issues in the country.

That was brought into sharp focus during the Millennium drought (which ran approximately from 2002-2009), leading to the passage of the Howard government’s Water Act in 2007.

That committed $10 billion towards a decade-long effort to reach a national agreement on water use in the Murray-Darling, to redress the over-allocation of water licences and to return water to the environment.

The 2012 Murray-Darling Basin Plan was the result of that long and painful process.

Broadly speaking, it plans to remove 2,750 gigalitres of water from irrigated agriculture, and return that to the river system.

As of the end of June 2017, a little over 2,080 gigalitres had been recovered through a mix of government purchases of water licences and taxpayer-funded infrastructure improvements.

In return for making their farms more water-efficient, farmers surrender the water they save to the Commonwealth.

The head of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) has said the historic agreement to protect Australia’s iconic river system for the environment and agriculture is in danger of collapse.

Key points:

  • MDBA chief concerned NSW and Victorian governments will walk away from plan
  • ALP announced it would support Greens’ bid to block a cut in the amount of water being returned to northern basin
  • MDBA said cut would save 200 jobs in irrigation-dependent communities in NSW and Queensland
  • MDBA chief executive Phillip Glyde told the ABC he was concerned the New South Wales and Victorian governments might act on their threats to potentially walk away from the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

“It’s certainly under a lot of pressure at the moment,” he said.

“If it [the plan] does collapse, we go back to circumstances before 2012 where various state governments use water as they may wish, but it doesn’t look after the basin as a whole.

“It would undermine the food bowl of the nation, undermine us having a sustainable basin that is environmentally sound.”

See murraydeclaration.org for signatories.

Next article – Winter Olympics thaw

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