FRESH analysis of social and economic impacts occurring in the northern Murray Darling Basin shows the Basin Plan is the “straw that’s breaking the camel’s back” for some farm-water-dependent rural communities, says Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) CEO Phil Glyde.
Mr Glyde said the recently completed northern Basin review was a “significant piece of work” that’s unprecedented in Australia, with its methods now set to be used when conducting similar new analysis of impacts caused by the southern Basin’s water-flow measures.
He said that investigation would provide more detailed information on the Basin Plan’s specific town-by-town impacts and “what we expect will continue to be”.
From the northern review, the MDBA has proposed cutting that region’s Sustainable Diversion Limits target (SDL), or environmental water-flow targets, by 70 gigalitres in a recommendation put to Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce.
Mr Glyde said the MDBA’s analysis also helped it differentiate between the economic and social impacts of seasonal challenges and technological changes, and those caused by legislated water reduction measures, in the Basin Plan.
He said a historical study of local impacts showed that the cotton sector’s shift to using round-up ready biotech cotton and round bale technology was the biggest source of job losses in the northern Basin.
In essence, the Basin Plan arrived after those industry changes occurred and “we’ve sort of further impacted the towns”, he said of the Basin Plan’s water cuts.
“In some ways we can almost be seen as the straw that’s breaking the camels’ back, because we’ve come along after this long period of job-loss, through other means,” he said.
“But we’ve got a much better understanding of the context in which the Basin Plan is being rolled out now and that’s pretty important to understanding where the impacts are as well.
“Some towns are resilient and some towns are a bit larger and dependent on other businesses and more able to withstand (the impacts).
“Goondiwindi is a pretty diverse economy and hasn’t been as heavily impacted by changes to water availability as towns like Dirranbandi and St George which are much more dependent on irrigation.”
Mr Glyde said it was a “fine balancing act” to implement the Basin Plan’s water saving measures correctly but despite that pressure, the MDBA had demonstrated improved transparency measures, during the northern review.
He said the Authority showed stakeholders how its 70GLs decision was reached, by publishing the review’s report and findings, which analysed environmental, economic and social consequences associated with various SDL targets.
Mr Glyde said the proposed amendment to lower the northern Basin’s SDL target from 390GLs to 320GLs would also see the Basin Plan’s overall baseline “number” lowered from 2750GLs to 2680GLs.
“It’s a really fundamental change and the best thing about the northern Basin review is it demonstrates clearly that the Basin Plan is adaptive,” he said.
“We made our decision in 2012 on the basis of the best available information at that time, recognising it wasn’t as good as what we had in the south, but now we’ve got that new information we’re changing.”
Mr Glyde said when the Basin Plan was introduced, it was recognised that the MDBA’s level and depth of information on the northern system was nowhere near as good as what it had for the south.
He said it was agreed to return in four years’ time, after conducting further study on the north, to make a judgement about whether to change the amount of water to be returned to the environment.
The northern Basin is everything above Menindee, or half of NSW and southern part of QLD, he said.
“We went out and did a lot of economic, environmental, social and hydrological new work to try and bring it up to the level of the south,” he said.
“On the basis of that, we believe we can get a better triple bottom line decision than what’s currently in the Plan…using 70GLs less water.”
Mr Glyde said the southern Basin had an SDL adjustment mechanism of 650GLs and it was possible to lower that number, if environmental outcomes were maintained.
“You can have up to 650GLs worth of those measures replacing 650GLs of water so in essence the northern Basin review is that adjustment mechanism for the north and it shows that we can adapt as we get better information,” he said.
“If in four years’ time or in 10 years’ time we’ll know lots more about the Murray Darling Basin and how it works and the economic, social and environmental consequences of the Plan and therefore we can change it.
“It’s the first demonstration we have of being able to change the Plan which is important for building confidence and knowing that it’s possible to get new information and improve.”
In November, the MDBA released its proposed amendment to lower the northern Basin target by 70GLs and a statutory period for public feedback has now been extended out to February 10.
Mr Glyde said the MDBA was encouraging all stakeholders to make submissions and after being received the Authority was then obliged to summarise that feedback and publish it on their website and provide it to the ministerial council of state water ministers and federal minister.
“After we’ve got all of that information in, we then make a judgement as to whether or not we need to amend our amendment and then we provide an amended amendment, if it needs to change, to the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources,” he said.
“If he’s happy with that amendment he introduces it into parliament and it’s a disallowable instrument because we’re changing this number in the Plan.
“And on the assumption that the Senate supports it, we then have a newer lower number, 15 sitting days after it’s introduced.”