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Issue #1530      7 December 2011

Weakened Murray Darling Plan rejected by everyone

The federal government may have expected big irrigation corporations to approve the government’s revised version of the Murray-Darling Plan which was released by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) last week.

But they rejected it. True to form they carefully avoided referring directly to any financial losses they themselves are likely to face, preferring to rant about the difficulties that country communities will experience in dealing with reduced water flows.

Stewart Hill, chairman of the National Irrigators Council, declared: “If the draft basin plan is adopted in its current form, the minister (for Water and the Environment) would be responsible for economically and socially destroying communities reliant on water for their survival.”

On the other hand the Greens, the CSIRO, environmental organisations, and concerned citizens (including many farmers) have complained that in the long term the greatly reduced reallocation of water to the river environment will simply prolong its agonising decline.

Aboriginal communities living near the rivers are anxiously surveying the report’s figures to determine whether the allocation for the environment will arrest the decline in their traditional food sources.

At the moment river flows are healthy, because of good rainfalls. In the future, however, droughts and periods of low rainfall are certain to increase because of climate change.

If insufficient water is returned to the environment, the future for the rivers, and for agriculture and the river communities, will be very grim indeed. In the long term fish stocks will decline, and river wildlife and migratory bird flocks will be threatened. The river red gums will continue to die, and outbreaks of algal blooms will increase in extent and frequency. The Murray River’s mouth will silt up and close for long periods; increasing salt levels will kill off fish in the Coorong and Lower Lakes and acid leaching will occur in the dried-out river bed.

The initial draft

The initial draft of the MDBA report, released In November last year, was based on careful scientific analysis. Initiated in 2007 by the Howard government, its terms of reference were established under a bi-partisan agreement between the government and the federal opposition, and were dedicated to tackling the river system’s environmental crisis.

The initial draft recommended that the sustainable diversion limits (the amount of surface water extracted from rivers and lakes for agriculture and industry) should be reduced by 7,600 billion litres per year (7600 GL/y), in order to benefit the river environment.

It nominated 3,000 GL/y as the absolute minimum that should be returned to the environment, but stipulated that this figure was only applicable under conditions of consistently good rainfall in the Murray-Darling catchment area.

However, farmers in the three eastern mainland states (especially those involved in irrigation) verbally attacked MDBA representatives at public meetings, burning copies of the draft report. Irrigation corporations led a persistent public relations campaign in bitter opposition to the report’s recommendations.

In an act of moral cowardice the Labor government disowned the report, announcing it would be withdrawn and thoroughly revised. The head of the Authority, who had valiantly confronted very hostile audiences in defence of the report, resigned in disgust.

The revised report

The revised report gives concessions to the biggest irrigators and allows for the scheme to be phased in over five years. Prepared under the leadership of former NSW state Labor government minister Craig Knowles, it abandoned the initial draft report’s recommendation to return 7,600 GL/y to the environment, opting for a miserly 2,800 billion, which was subsequently lowered to 2,750 billion.

Dr Jamie Pitock, director of international programs for UNESCO, commented: “I think there are serious questions to be asked about where these figures came from, as they don’t appear to have been based on any science”.

The SA government has demanded the return of a minimum 4,000 GL/y to the environment. Tony Burke, federal Minister for Water and the Environment, has dismissed this as unmanageable and likely to provide little extra environmental benefit.

Surface water is fed by groundwater (subterranean streams and aquifers), and the National Water Commission has warned that any increase in the extraction of ground water should be compensated by a deduction in surface water diversion, unless there is geological proof that the groundwater in question is isolated.

However, it is not clear whether this has been taken into account in determining the revised surface water diversion limits. The revised report allows for an increase in the extraction of groundwater, much of which is now going to mining companies extracting coal seam gas.

Amazingly, the revised report did not consider the effects of climate change on the river system! The CSIRO review panel that pointed this out also commented: “The panel understands that other reduction scenarios have been modelled, but the panel has not seen modelling results for these other scenarios, and thus it is not clear how the 2800GL/y reduction proposal was arrived at.”

Where the rivers lead

Water cuts will certainly involve a difficult and often painful experience for some river-dependent communities, especially those associated with intensive irrigation. However, the government could have stuck to its guns, stared down the irrigators and concentrated on working out ways to minimise the impact on those communities, especially by encouraging new industries.

Instead, its craven and opportunistic decision to dump the initial report’s recommendations convinced irrigators they could simply beat the government down, as the mining industry did over the super profits tax.

But it’s not so simple. Failure to protect migratory bird species would breach the government’s international obligations under UN conventions. Moreover, the Greens have threatened to oppose implementation of the revised report’s weakened recommendations, which will also be subjected to a legal challenge by the SA government.

It is therefore possible that the Gillard government will be forced by political and legal imperatives, including public pressure, to revert to the initial draft’s recommendations. This would preserve the fragile coalition with the Greens and independents, and would also win the support of voters concerned about the future of our great national asset, the beautiful but ailing Murray-Darling river system.  

Next article – Dare to struggle, dare to win

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