MOVES to try to thwart the Murray Darling Basin Plan’s progress have been lambasted by farming leaders while the Murray Darling Basin Authority says some of the claims being made about the Plan’s stalled progress are “simply not true”.
In a move sceptics say is aimed at causing political disruption ahead of the March State election in South Australia, a group of 12 water scientists and economists from around Australia made a joint declaration at the University of Adelaide today on the Basin Plan.
They put forward three central demands in claiming the $13 billion water sharing legislation, signed into law by current Labor Shadow Water Minister Tony Burke in 2012, needs intervention in order to be repaired.
Stop all publicly funded water recovery associated with irrigation infrastructure subsidies and grants;
A publicly available, independent audit of all Basin water recovery and planned water use limitations, including details of environmental water recovered, expenditures and actual environmental outcomes;
Establish an independent and expert body to monitor, measure and to publicly guide the delivery of the Water Act (2007).
Professor Sarah Wheeler from the University of Adelaide’s Centre for Global Food and Resources said “Despite already spending more than $6 billion dollars in water recovery over the past decade, and with billions more still committed through irrigation on-farm and supply infrastructure, the scientists and economists who have signed this Declaration remain concerned that the proposed social, cultural, economic and environmental outcomes are not being achieved”.
Mr Burke was contacted for comment but did not respond before deadline.
But National Farmers’ Federation CEO Tony Mahar said it was “pretty disappointing” that the group of 12 scientists had sought to claim “notoriety” off the back of “bashing the Basin Plan”.
“That’s not what we need,” he said.
“We need people - scientists included - to get behind the Plan, address the issues and put their views forward but not to blow up the Plan.
“It’s counterproductive, irresponsible and ill-informed, from our point of view.
“We have been part of the process, through our networks like commodity groups and state farming groups and industry stakeholders who live this plan day to day and we’ve been directly engaged with them and we will remain engaged with them.
“But efforts to jump on the bandwagon and bash the Plan aren’t helpful.”
Mr Mahar said the level of politics around the Basin Plan including in South Australia was “part of the complexity of the Plan”.
“As we know its six governments and there are elections (coming up) in two of the states and we acknowledge that,” he said.
“What we want is recognition of how important this Plan is, how long it took to get agreement and we want to see measures in place to address all of the issues that have been brought up.
“But threatening to walk away from the Plan and threats to do particular activities are unhelpful.
“We need people to come together and work together to commit to the Plan to see it to fruition.”
Mr Mahar said the 12 scientists were calling for “another inquiry” on top of exciting ones into areas like compliance and allegations of water theft and a “full inquiry” that’s due to be conducted by the Productivity Commission this year.
He said funding for on farm activity through new and improved infrastructure projects should not be stifled.
“This is where the evidence says there can be gains for the environment and farming communities so calling for a halt to those programs doesn’t fully appreciate the commitment from the farmers and communities,” he said.
“By all means, make sure that they’re working properly, but let’s not call for bans on programs for farmers and communities to recover water that will have an economic and environmental benefit.”
Southern Riverina Irrigators (SRI) said the Basin Plan wasn’t due to be fully implemented until 2019 and was over five years old – but the 12 scientists had claimed it wasn’t delivering on its objectives while calling for another audit and a new advisory council.
“A cynic would say that they are seeking to secure work for themselves while disregarding the real work that is going on in the Basin to deliver the Basin Plan and environmental watering programs,” SRI Chair Gabrielle Coupland said.
“Phillip Glyde (MDBA CEO) often says that it will take time for the environment to rebuild resilience and we agree but these scientists seem to expect overnight change which is as impractical as it is impossible.
“The scientists claim there is no evidence that infrastructure spending on water recovery has not resulted in increased stream flows but that result has little to do with how water was recovered and more to do with how the environmental water is managed.
“In our area the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder has used the environmental allocations to improve stream flows significantly working with the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage to provide flows to disconnected ephemeral creeks and streams.”
Mrs Coupland said collaborative programs in the NSW Murray like the ephemeral creek watering and a private property wetlands watering program were all achieving significant environmental results.
“To see if the Basin Plan is working, you need do more than desk-top audits of parliamentary inquiries and government audits,” she said.
“We need more collaboration, not another audit or another tax-payer funded advisory body.”
Mrs Coupland said the only concern raised by the scientists that her group agreed with was the fact that the Murray Mouth was in a dire state.
But she said that was due to management of the barrages and south east drains and not flows.
MDBA – claims by 12 scientists “simply not true”
Mr Glyde iissued a statement saying the Basin Plan was working but a century of damage cannot be repaired overnight
“It is with great concern that I have seen reports of calls to halt the implementation of the Basin Plan,” he said.
“This would risk returning the future of our nation’s most important water resource and the communities and industries that rely on it, to a state of uncertainty and peril.
“The Murray Darling Basin Plan is visionary, long-term policy and it’s working.
“Claims that the Plan’s investment in more modern and efficient water infrastructure is not delivering benefits for the environment are simply not true.”
Mr Glyde said Basin Plan water infrastructure efficiency program had so far recovered over 700 gigalitres of water for the environment.
He said they were “genuine water savings” transferred to the Commonwealth in the form of water entitlements.
“In total we have now achieved almost all the water recovery required under the Plan, with more than 2100GLs of water recovered for the environmental health of the river system,” he said.
“That’s more than 2100GLs of water that will be delivered back to the environment every year, on average and is equivalent to more than four times the volume of Sydney Harbour.
“The Basin Plan was neither expected nor intended to deliver immediate results.
“It is simply not possible to repair 100 years of damage to such a vast river system overnight or even within five years.
“That is why the Basin Plan is a long-term plan, the benefits of which will continue to accrue over the next 50 to 100 years.
“However, we are seeing what we hoped for at this stage of the Plan - good early signs that if we continue with the Plan we will see significant, lasting and system-wide benefits.”
Mr Glyde said a progress report on the Basin Plan’s first five years of implementation found that where environmental water was able to be delivered “we see positive ecological responses”.
“These are the early signs that we are helping revive the health of the Basin’s rivers and floodplains,” he said.
“Environmental water has been used in over 750 planned watering events in the past four years, with environmental water holders working together to get water to priority areas at the right time.
“There is clear evidence of positive local-scale environmental outcomes, with positive ecological responses including fish spawning and movement, enhanced bird breeding events and improvements in the health of some areas of native vegetation including River red gum forests.
“These benefits will continue to grow as the implementation of the Plan continues.”
Mr Glyde said as the current debate about the future of the Plan “rages” he urged people to remember what’s at stake, and to reflect on its beginnings and the reason it came into being and the revolutionary change it represented.
“The Plan was borne of an urgent need to save our nation’s most iconic and important river system - it was agreed by hard-won consensus among all Basin governments and the Commonwealth,” he said.
“Successive governments, both state and Commonwealth, have repeatedly reaffirmed their commitment to the Plan.
“This kind of ongoing consensus is almost unheard of, and I fear that should it be broken now, it would never be recaptured; much to the detriment of the Basin and its communities.
“The Basin Plan is an achievement Australia should be proud of.
“Other countries look to our nation as having some of the best and most successful water management policies in the world.
Without the Basin Plan the river system would have continued to degrade, jeopardising the future of Basin communities and the environment.
“Implementing the Plan is not easy and not without challenges - however, it remains our nation’s best pathway for securing the future of this vital shared resource.
“Basin Plan limits on water take become legally binding in mid-2019.
“I believe to abandon the Plan now, before there has been a chance to realise the full extent of its benefits, would be a disaster.
“We must stay the course.”
Convenor of the Declaration Professor Quentin Grafton, a Professor of Economics at the Australian National University, said the Declaration was about how to fix what is going wrong in the Basin and wasn’t about politics or about playing the ‘blame game’.
“It is about saying water reform is not delivering what it said it would for the Basin, its environment or its people and saying how we solve it,” he said.
“$4 billion has been spent on subsidies for irrigation infrastructure by governments over the past decade yet we do not have adequate measures of what this does to stream flows.
“Amazingly, despite allocating half a billion dollars in 2007 to upgrade water meters in the Basin, as much as 75 per cent of all surface water diversions in the northern part of the Basin may not be metered.
“This makes no sense.
“Taxpayers, the Basin and its people deserve much better.”
- The 12 signatories
- Professors Henning Bjornlund, Jeff Connor and Lin Crase (University of South Australia)
- Richard Davis (formerly Chief Science Advisor to the National Water Commission)
- Professor Quentin Grafton (Australian National University)
- Dr Graham Harris (Foundation Chief of CSIRO Land and Water and Honorary Professorial Fellow University of Wollongong)
- Associate Professor Darla Hatton MacDonald (University of Tasmania)
- Professor Richard Kingsford (University of New South Wales)
- Associate Professor David Paton AM (University of Adelaide)
- Professor John Quiggin (University of Queensland)
- Professor Sarah Wheeler (University of Adelaide)
- Adjunct Professor John Williams (ANU and former Head of CSIRO Land & Water, and former Natural Resources Commissioner, NSW)
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