The latest proposal to cut 605bn litres of water from flowing down the Murray-Darling river system will test the nation’s faith in water reform.
Transparency, accountability, trust: these have sadly gone missing from the nation’s plan for the health of the river system. Allegations of water theft, inequity for downstream communities and poor governance have all shaken the foundations of faith in the plan that state and federal governments agreed to in 2012.
There is no perfect plan. But the Murray-Darling basin plan was agreed to by the federal parliament and only last year the prime minister secured a commitment from all state and territory governments to deliver the basin plan “on time and in full”. National water reform has and still can deliver substantial and sustained benefits for people and the nation’s river systems.
The Murray-Darling basin plan is designed to recover 3,200bn litres of water per year to improve river health. This is not sufficient to restore all the elements that Australians value, like the Coorong wetland, nor does it address the looming threats from climate change to water availability and use. Despite this, the Wentworth Group supports the plan. If successful, it will be a historically significant step towards more sustainable industries, towns and the environment in the basin.
Changing habits formed over more than a century is a daunting prospect. Yet the nation’s parliaments initially achieved just that – major changes in what has been decades of over-extraction of water. In recent years, however, the return of water to the river system has slowed to a trickle as pressure has been exerted on governments to unwind water recovery targets and halt the necessary purchases of water to sustain the river system.
Only one-quarter of the 2,100bn litres of water recovered under the Water Act 2007 has been acquired since the basin plan was adopted in 2012. The cost of water has doubled as recovery programs now prioritise subsidising infrastructure rather than buying water rights.
In February the Wentworth Group supported the Senate’s disallowance of an amendment to the basin plan that would have reduced water for the Darling river and downstream users by 70bn litres. With that reduction, only 41% of the target flow indicators for environmental health in the northern rivers would have been achieved.
The Senate noted that reducing environmental water in the Darling river system would have rewarded the New South Wales government for its gross negligence in not managing water transparently and fairly in the basin. For example, the NSW government changed the Barwon-Darling water sharing plan rules to make it easier for irrigators to take water. The alleged rampant theft of water by some irrigators in NSW highlights the need for public interests in water to be protected through tougher laws, transparent access to information, and strong monitoring and compliance.
State and federal governments are now proposing to reduce the return of water to the rivers by 605bn litres in an amendment to the basin plan that the Senate will consider in May. They propose to do this through 36 projects, costing $1.3bn, that would supposedly enable conservation of freshwater biodiversity with less water.
Last year the Wentworth Group extensively evaluated the 36 proposed projects against 12 criteria adopted in the Water Act, the basin plan and inter-basin government meetings. Only one project clearly met all 12 criteria. One of the reasons was because the NSW government refused to release the business cases for its 11 projects. It is incomprehensible that the NSW government thinks the community would simply trust it, without releasing any information, with such massive public funding for projects that will make or break the basin plan.
We do know the Murray-Darling basin authority had grave concerns with the quality of the states’ initial project proposals thanks to the Senate’s order for production of the authority’s assessment documents. Many of the problems with these projects can be fixed by locking funding and legislation for four crucial measures:
- Establishing flood easements and improving or relocating vulnerable infrastructure, as the Murray-Darling basin authority’s “constraints relaxation” strategy proposes. This will enable the limited environmental water to be released in pulses down the rivers to maximise environmental benefits by inundating the floodplain wetlands.
- Legislating for the recovery of the full 450bn litres per year promised by basin governments through water efficiency and related projects.
- Ensuring the projects for reduction of environmental water only proceed if they pass the 12 government-agreed criteria for effective projects.
- Ensuring the management rules behind the Murray-Darling basin authority’s water flow model are rigorously implemented (“prerequisite policy measures”) to prevent state governments shifting the goal posts to favour water consumption.
Without the return of enough water, our rivers will be afflicted with more blue-green algae blooms, salinity levels will rise, more extensive areas of floodplain forests will die and internationally significant wetlands along the river Murray will be lost. Further, Indigenous communities, and pastoral and tourism industries will be badly affected.
Without full transparency, the public can have no trust in water reform. We urge members of parliament to work together to implement the basin plan in full and on time by establishing effective flood easements, recovering 450bn litres through water efficiency and related projects, funding only the well-justified adjustment projects and properly implementing the agreed rules for managing the river system.
- Dr Jamie Pittock is a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and an associate professor at the Australian National University
via Guardian Environment http://bit.ly/2rMakBX
April 5, 2018 at 11:18AM