COTTON Australia says the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) must avoid “quick and dirty” water savings measures, and prioritise tougher but more rewarding methods of achieving environmental gains, to avoid causing further suffering for rural farming communities due to the Basin Plan.
Cotton Australia CEO Adam Kay said his group didn’t support the MDBA’s recommendation from its recent review of environmental water savings measures in the Basin Plan, to cut that portion of system’s baseline target from 390 gigalitres to 320GLs.
Mr Kay said Cotton Australia believed the 278GLs in environmental water flows - that’s already been recovered from agricultural irrigation communities - was sufficient.
He said the MDBA’s economic modelling in the northern Basin review showed that the 278GLs had already caused significant social and economic damage with job cuts of up to 30 per cent in some towns.
The Authority’s economic analysis says 711 jobs would be lost at the 390GLs level due to economic down-turn caused by reduced water availability, with many jobs gone already.
However, it also says that number would fall to 528 jobs, at 320GLs representing a saving of almost 200 jobs.
MDBA CEO Phil Glyde said in Queensland, the job-losses caused by the Basin Plan were mostly from the cotton production sector and secondary businesses that supply the cotton industry.
But Mr Kay said complementary measures like releasing the carpe herpes virus into the river-system would create significant positive impacts for its environmental health, without cruelling farm production and the economic viability of farming regions that rely on water, for sustainability.
“Full marks to the MDBA for doing the socio-economic work but the sad thing is it has just reflected what we’ve been saying for the last five years which is; when you take water out of these rural communities it has a flow on effect,” he said.
“If you reduce the amount of irrigated crop that’s grown - and in many cases it’s cotton - that means there’s less fertiliser to be sold, less fuel to be carted out to the farms etc.
“If you start losing that business it flows through to the community and that’s what we’re seeing now.”
Mr Kay said towns like Wee Waa, Collarenebri and Warren had been hit “really hard” by water cuts in the Basin Plan.
“From the cotton industry’s point of view enough is enough - there are other ways of getting the environmental benefits that we’re seeking for our river systems,” he said.
“We want healthy river systems too and we really do want that but there are other ways of doing that.
“We believe complementary measures could be used which would give massive environmental benefits but won’t have impacts on the community.”
Mr Kay said one such measure of releasing the carpe herpes virus would have a “massive impact” on the river-system’s environmental well-being.
He said using multi-level off-takes, where warm water is drawn off the top of a dam and released down the river to stimulate native fish breeding, was another complementary measure that should be adopted.
“At the moment they suck cold water out from the bottom of the storages which is detrimental to native fish,” he said.
“There are many things we can do that don’t involve throwing more water at the system which can deliver massive environmental benefits and that’s what we’re asking the Authority to look at and recognise.
“From our point of view enough is enough, there are massive impacts on some of our rural communities and their own data says that.
“Their own data shows a reduction in employment in towns like Wee Waa and Warren of 30pc.”
Mr Kay said the proposed, adjusted 320GLs target for the northern Basin did not have Cotton Australia’s backing and the current 278GLs number was “the amount it should be halted at”.
He said he was pleased to see the Authority recognising the economic and social loss caused by reduced water, in reducing the number by 70GLs “but we think it should be squared-off now”.
“The MDBA should work with industry on these complementary measures that will give the environmental benefit they’re looking for but won’t damage rural communities,” he said.
“If there’s a smarter way to do it, why don’t we go that way?
“From the word go we’ve always said it’s not about this mentality of ‘just add more water and it’ll fix the problem’ because it just doesn’t work.
“I’ve spent a lot of time working in the Macquarie Marshes and know them Macquarie Marshes very well and have seen more and more water get thrown at the Macquarie Marshes and the benefits are just not there.
“It’s not about adding more – it’s about the management.
“In many areas we can do better.
“Buying the water back is the quick and dirty way and easy way for bureaucrats but managing the water is much harder and provides more benefits, without hurting rural communities.”
Mr Kay said the MDBA had responded to accusations of being out of touch with Basin communities by improving the quality of community engagement under new CEO Mr Glyde.
He said due to Mr Glde’s leadership, stakeholders were seeing “a different Authority” that’s “quite receptive” to ideas raised by industry, like using complementary measures “and full marks to them”.
“They are listening,” he said.
“They’ve done the northern Basin review and we may not agree with it 100pc but it’s a move in the right direction.
“But now we’d ask them to move it more in the right direction and take on board some of these suggestions that industry is putting forward because at the end of the day we all want the same thing; a healthy Murray Darling system for everyone.”
Mr Glyde said essentially nobody involved in the review process - including farming groups - had publicly stated that 320GLs was “the right number” for the northern Basin.
He said he understood most irrigation industries and irrigation dependent communities would have preferred the MDBA to remain on 278GLs.
But the Authority’s environmental analysis shows that by moving up from 278GLs to 320GLs, “we get quite a significant increase in environmental outcomes but after 320GLs it tends to flat-line”, he said.
“We tested a scenario with 415GLs and we even did an internal test at 500GLs where you don’t get much greater environmental benefit but you get a very significant increase in economic costs,” he said.
“Our job is to try and hit that triple bottom line balanced outcome and we think the 320GLs is better balanced than the 390GLs, based on this new information.”
Mr Glyde said farming groups preferred 278GLs because of concerns about causing more economic damage and a further reduction in water availability for crops like cotton and for flood-plain grazing lands.
But he said the farm sector had also “congratulated” the MDBA on its moves to apply complementary measures, to help meet water-recovery targets.
“The farm groups like the use of these complementary measures and they like the fact that we’ve reduced the overall target by 70GLs,” he said.
“For them it’s a bit of a mixed bag and they would prefer it to be a lower target but we get a better balance this way, even though we acknowledge that it’s going to continue to have a pretty significant short-term impact.
“But the logic is we’re putting the whole of that industry on a more sustainable footing into the future.
“Sooner or later the extent of over-allocation, which has existed right across the Basin and was the reason for the Plan in the first place, has to be accepted.
“Once that has been accepted, it’s really a question of what’s the fairest and the best way to move from an over-allocated system to a more sustainable level which is what we think we’ve struck, with the Basin Plan.”
Mr Glyde said the Authority’s proposed amendment to lower the northern system’s “number” from 390GLs to 320GLs was based on an understanding that governments introduced complementary measures or “non-flow measures”.
He said those measures included; better protection of environmental water; introduction of infrastructure like fish ladders; cold water pollution curtains; and being more imaginative and smarter about “how we acquire water”.
He said it was better to achieve the water reductions that must come from farming communities through investment in infrastructure projects, rather than water buybacks.
“Maybe we should be buying slices of entitlements; not the whole entitlement,” he said.
“The problem with the north is it’s much more episodic and irregular flows and so you need to do these things because you’re talking average flow rates which is what we tend to do in the south but that doesn’t quite work in the north.
“We think that we’ve reached a much better triple bottom line outcome.
“We’ve saved 200 jobs across the 21 communities that we’ve surveyed and so it’s roughly the same environmental outcome, for much less economic impact.”
Mr Glyde said the MDBA had met with environmental groups to explain the review results and they had expressed fears about the proposed 70GLs reduction because they didn’t believe the proposed complementary measures, or tool kit measures, would work.
He said environmental groups were worried about any reduction in water flows for parts of the river-system that are “already stressed”, he said.
But Mr Glyde said the environmental indicators used by the MDBA to judge what the right water levels should be - whether it’s 390GLs, 320GLs or 278GLs - showed some improvements.
“We actually get one more environmental indicator achieved, with 320, as we did with 390, and we go backwards on some of the other ones, but we still have a greater level of achievement on indicators,” he said.
“We’re in the process of explaining that to the environmental groups and they’re still sceptical of these changes; they just see it as a backward step but we don’t think it is,” he said.
“We think it’s the right balance and that we can get roughly the same environmental outcomes and save 200 jobs.”
Mr Glyde said the complementary measures required the commonwealth, NSW, and QLD governments to make commitments on projects that improve water-use efficiency and in particular, water that must be returned to the environment.