INTERNATIONAL water expert Dr John Conallin is speaking out for the first time on the Murray Darling Basin Plan, urging river regulators to look beyond what he says is an unhealthy fixation on water recovery.
Dr Conallin is a visiting researcher with the United Nations’ UNESCO-IHE initiative for sustainable water management. He grew up on a farm at Deniliquin and now works on river systems in Africa and Asia – and maintains a daily interest in his home river.
He said to maximise environmental recovery government and the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) need to shift focus from water recovery and onto non-flow related environmental measures.
There’s enough water in the bank to meet the goals of the Basin Plan, Dr Conallin says.
“We need to start delivering the water we have in the best way possible way and freeing-up resources to invest in measures such as native fish breeding and restocking, habitat restoration and fishways (ladders over man-made barriers that allows fish to access their natural range).”
His comments precede a meeting of Basin state water ministers on Friday. At issue, among the typical upstream-against-South Australia arguments, will be the potential reduction of water recovery.
To date, 1980 gigalitres of water has been recovered toward the overall Basin Plan target of 2750GL. In Southern NSW, a cap of 1048GL is set on consumptive water use and 690GL has been recovered. In northern NSW, 272GL has gone toward the target of 390GL, currently under review.
Native fish populations across the Basin are like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, and in many areas they are locally extinct, Dr Conallin said.
Focus on fish
“The almost complete focus on water recovery for fish-based outcomes is not scientifically justified.”
Many of the original causes of species decline have been removed or mitigated, such as recreational and commercial over-fishing, salinity and localised habitat repair.
“The time is ripe for ambitious fish re-stocking initiatives,” he said.
Restocking programs have worked well in the past, “but we need to ramp them up now – big time”.
“They must be integrated as part of the Basin Plan and combined with the release of the “once-in-a-lifetime ecological opportunity with the plan to release the carp herpes virus” (a Commonwealth initiative to control the damaging feral pest).
“Native fish can control the carp - but it wont be effective unless we backfill the system with natives, millions of them, all different sorts, river and wetland species.”
He added that while popular fishing targets - Murray Cod and Golden Perch – are rightly on the agenda, lesser-known species are at risk.
“Wetland specialists such as pygmy perch and purple spotted gudgeon are now locally extinct to most of the Basin. We simply need to start putting back them back through government-community partnerships.
Dr Conallin said while the MDBA lists adaptive management and localism as its guiding principles, these concepts have been overlooked in the Basin Plan rollout.
River towns opposed the plan from its inception, criticising a lack of local input and the perceived blind pursuit of water by the gigalitres to fill the Basin Plan pre-set bucket load.
Dr Conallin said non-flow measures to boost ecological health would demonstrate that “government is not concentrating on a single variable” and would help foster buy-in to the plan.
“They lost the trust and now can’t get it back,” he said.
Joint stocking initiatives between government and the community should be a top of the list, he said.
MDBA chief executive Phillip Glyde announced this week it would a review the impacts of water recovery in southern NSW.
“Our socio-economic work in the Northern Basin provided some new and important insights into the effects of water recovery on communities,” Mr Glyde said.
For this reason, I am keen that we undertake similar work in the south to inform the long-planned 2017 evaluation.”
Some stakeholders argued the southern review is long overdue already, given the same study had been completed in the north, where water recovery is less.