ACF flags Basin concerns

22 Nov, 2014 03:00 AM
The River Murray.
The task ahead is at least as big as that which has already been completed
The River Murray.

THE Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) has raised several red flag warnings about critical aspects of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan’s implementation.

The warnings are made in a special report released today by the ACF to mark the second anniversary of the Basin Plan becoming a Commonwealth law.

ACF says its report – Restoring our lifeblood: Progress on returning water to the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin - illustrates that while some aspects of the plan are proceeding as intended, other key areas are not on track - with some in danger of going backwards.

The report rates various aspects of the Basin Plan’s implementation according to a traffic light system, awarding red lights to imminent and serious risks, amber lights to emerging issues, and green lights for activities that are on track.

The report has also awarded “light bulbs” for opportunities where the government can implement further positive reform.

ACF Healthy Ecosystems program manager Jonathan La Nauze said the two-year anniversary report highlighted concerns about some areas of progress within the Basin Plan that needed government and stakeholder attention.

“While everyone hopes the biggest arguments and most painful decisions about the Murray-Darling are behind us, the task ahead is at least as big as that which has already been completed,” he said

“The federal government’s bias towards recovering water through subsidising irrigation upgrades is making the task of returning the promised 3200GL difficult, because much of the low-hanging fruit has already been picked.

“Yet without this volume of water back in the rivers, the Coorong and other wetlands will be in dire trouble.

“Governments must keep to the agreed timelines to avoid a domino effect jeopardising the ability of the plan to safeguard the river system – which is the lifeblood of the nation, sustaining and supporting millions of Australians – before the next big drought hits.”

The report said that as of September 30 this year the Commonwealth had achieved approximately 1907GL of the Basin Plan’s 2750GL recovery target, with approximately 1140GL of that water recovered through buybacks.

In November 2013 the federal government announced it would cap buybacks of water at 1500GL, and potentially push the number as low as 1300GL, depending on the outcomes of the sustainable diversion adjustment mechanism, the report said.

ACF awarded an amber light for progress on recovering water for the environment, saying it was on track with expectations.

But it said the controversial cap on water buybacks “creates uncertainty about whether this progress can be maintained”.

The report awarded a red light for the recovery of water through infrastructure subsidies saying it was “an inefficient way to recover water for the environment and eats into limited funds for water recovery”.

“The Murray-Darling Basin is the lifeblood of the nation,” the report said.

“The basin is not only an ecological wonder; it also sustains and supports millions of Australians. Two million people call the Murray-Darling Basin home - another 1.2 million depend on its waters to survive.

“The basin contributes significantly to agricultural productivity, providing approximately 40 per cent of Australia’s gross agricultural production.

“With investment in the basin now exceeding $13 billion, the Basin Plan is the largest natural resource management investment in Australia’s history and one of the world’s largest river restoration projects.

“A healthy Murray-Darling will play a critical role in enabling our nation to cope with and adapt to the risks that accompany human-induced climate change.

“Failure to implement the Basin Plan properly and restore the balance will have dire consequences – for our environment, our communities and, in the long run, our economy.”

Red lights

The 450GL Water for the Environment Trust Fund

The cap on buybacks is likely to drive up the cost and reduce the availability of water for the environment under the SDL adjustment mechanism, jeopardising the recovery of the additional 450GL.

Groundwater SDLs

The groundwater SDLs do not adopt a precautionary approach or adequately account for the interconnectedness of water resources and ecosystems in the basin. This threatens existing water users and groundwater dependent ecosystems, with proposed further increases in NSW likely to worsen the situation.

Cost barriers to environmental water delivery

Prohibitive costs for the movement and storage of water are limiting the delivery of environmental water within the Basin.

Connecting important areas

The Federal Government has slashed spending on Landcare and the National Reserve System and abolished the Biodiversity Fund.

Indigenous water rights

Despite significant discussion and research, there has been limited progress towards establishing cultural water entitlements within Murray-Darling Basin.

Institutions to drive water reform

The Federal Government is removing and eroding many of the institutions and responsibilities that drive water reform in Australia. This will have lasting negative impacts on the effective management of our water resources, particularly in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Amber lights

Re-connecting rivers and floodplains

Re-connecting the rivers and floodplains of the Basin is critical to restoring ecological health. The Constraints Management Strategy will play an important part in achieving some ‘connectivity’, but its effectiveness cannot be judged until detailed projects are outlined.

Supply measures

Governments are creating an expectation that 650GL of environmental water can be delivered through ‘supply measures’ that re-engineer the floodplain. It is highly unlikely this expectation can be met without significant environmental trade-offs and new barriers to connectivity through the construction of weirs and levies.

Maximising the environmental benefits from all classes of water

The Draft Basin Wide Environmental Watering Strategy contained promising commitments to measurable targets for environmental watering. While it is too early to assess progress on establishing Water Resource Plans, the National Water Commission has highlighted the risk of leaving this work till the last minute. Water Resource Plans will ultimately determine whether the environmental potential of the Basin Plan is fully realised.

Delivering water across different tenures

Restoring connectivity within the basin depends substantially on the ability to occasionally inundate private land. Progress in this area is unclear. Governments and water managers must come up with innovative and collaborative policy solutions to this challenge.

Trading environmental water

The trade in environmental water is a useful tool to move water throughout the basin in response to seasonal inflows. Trading provisions for environmental water must not be changed to allow proceeds to be used for activities other than recovering water.

Green lights

Engaging the community

Environmental water managers are leading genuine and effective engagement with regional communities across the basin.

Long term ecological monitoring

The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder’s Long Term Intervention Monitoring Program has been funded through to 2019.


Governments should develop storage and delivery products or services (including service level pricing) that are fair in the distribution and recovery of costs and also ensure the environment and other water users have access to the most appropriate services.

Commonwealth and states should strengthen the accountability for the delivery of planned environmental water and seek to maximise the benefits for all users through better coordination of the delivery of consumptive water with both ‘planned’ and ‘held’ environmental water.

Governments should commit to more integrated approaches to land and catchment management. This means increasing the national reserve system and funding land management practices that support environmental watering objectives.

Adaptive management - there is scope for better coordination, consistency and cooperation of monitoring programs, and to embed these within adaptive management frameworks.

Governments should seek to strengthen, not weaken, important public institutions. The Government should maintain the National Water Commission and create a fully independent Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder that is free from ministerial interference.

Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
Date: Newest first | Oldest first


6/12/2014 5:34:23 PM

Same old drivel from the ACF. All they want to do is shut down food production no matter what. There is enough water in Australia to feed more than 50million people. Just store the flood waters for the inevitable drought. Simple.
19/12/2014 9:50:22 PM

How much to completely pipe all existing entitlements and water requirements from the storages, down to all existing users with the highest efficiency onfarm systems. This will allow significant increases in reliability of supply for all users. A few rough estimates put it in about the same realm as the costs of the NBN. Increase production by 40 fold or more. This means State infrastructure that was designed by Engineers in the 1900's is upgraded for the needs of the 21 century. The stress reduction for all would be worth it and paid off over about 10 years of tax revenue.


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