Last week’s fish kill at Menindee Lakes in Far West NSW has public sentiment to ‘ban cotton’ and ‘fix the river’ running high, opening a Pandora's box of water policy.
Fresh government inquiries into the fish kill are underway. It looks like the federal election, due by May 18, will deliver a change of government. And there is now also increased scrutiny on last year’s decision to reduce Northern Basin water recovery by 70 gigaltires.
It should be noted, no detailed plans to change the management of the Barwon Darling River have entered the debate. It remains to be seen what, if any new initiatives are added to the Murray Darling Basin reform process.
But the odds of significant changes are narrowing like never before.
Late last year, federal and state water ministers sealed a deal which they said was an historic achievement that finally provided certainty after decades of water reform and disruption for Basin communities.
That was an agreement on how to recover the Basin Plan’s last remaining tranche of water recovery for the environment, the 450GL of ‘upwater’.
- Menindee Fish kill: how did we get here?
- Where did the water go at Menindee Lakes
- Inquiries a wildcard for irrigators
But recent controversy has plunged communities back into limbo.
For years struggling towns in the south and north of the Murray Darling Basin have warned that water recovery from irrigation could tip them over the edge.
Let’s take a look at the some of the ideas which could, potentially, influence future changes.
Opposition Water spokesman Tony Burke, who legislated the Basin Plan in 2012 when he was Water Minister, has provided a measured response to the fish kill.
He said the Menindee fish kill was an “extraordinary” event and demanded the federal government appoint a scientific taskforce to investigate the fish kill situation.
However, Mr Burke took issue with critics of the Basin Plan who have argued the environmental reform contributed to scale of the Menindee fish kill.
“Everything that was put in place for the plan has made the situation better than it otherwise would have been. There is not a single part of the Murray Darling Basin Plan that is a step backwards for the environment from where it was when I was Water Minister.”
Mr Burke said the MDBA is underfunded and lacked the capability to adequately monitor the outcomes of watering events and irrigation extraction on environmental assets like wetlands.
He has also consistently emphasised Basin Plan rules for efficiency projects. These are infrastructure or rule changes to be designed and built by the states to move water through the system more efficiently.
These projects can reduce the amount to be recovered from irrigators by up to 605GL, but Mr Burke points out that if these projects fail to live up to expectations the remainder must be bought back from entitlement holders.
The same goes for the 450GL of upwater. The states cut a deal to prioritise water recovery from urban sources like stormwater, and only draw on irrigation if it the local economy doesn’t take a hit.
Mr Burke has criticised the deal, arguing it could shortchange the environment. /story/5811393
It’s worth watching Labor’s policy platform in the lead-up to the election.
The party adopted an ambitious policy to overhaul federal environment laws on farming and land clearing at its National Conference in December last year, after its left wing faction won out over politicians who warned against picking unnecessary fights.
South Australian Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens spokeswoman on Water and the Environment, is leading the call for a federal royal commission into the Murray Darling Basin.
Senator Hanson-Young has lashed the cotton industry, making broad allegations that corruption has lead to excessive water entitlements in the Barwon Darling catchment.
Royal commissions are notoriously hard to predict, but it’s a reasonable assumption that testimony from scientists such as those of the Wentworth Group will feature prominently.
They have argued for water reforms with significant impacts on the farm sector - including: the Basin Plan needs to recover about one-third more water, pursue direct buybacks over efficiency projects, factor in climate change, and to tackle agricultural practices prominent in the Northern Basin - particularly floodplain harvesting.
The SA government commissioned its own royal commission last year, which is due to report on February 1.
NSW’s controversial water sharing rules for the Barwon Darling catchment have been in the headlines since former Water Minister Katrina Hodgkinson signed off on the current plan, in 2012.
The Water Sharing Plan grants A class licence holders the ability to access water during low flows.
The rules are due for a rewrite, and this time around NSW needs sign-off from the Murray Darling Basin Authority.
The fall-out from the fish kill may provide impetus for significant change.
The MDBA conducted a hydrological investigation of the Barwon Darling covering the period from 2000 to the present. It was released in March last year.
It found that flow gauge data showed dry conditions – particularly between Walgett and Brewarrina – had persisted for longer than the area was affected by the drought.
“Drought and climate change don’t explain it. It’s evident the extraction rules in place are part of the decline,” said MDBA chief executive Phillip Glyde.
NSW independent MP Jeremy Buckingham, a prominent advocate in the push to curb cotton in the Northern Basin, argues Murray Darling political inquiries aren’t enough.
He said cotton should only be grown when large volumes of water are moving through the catchment.
"While a powerful investigation into the management of water is necessary, there are obvious actions that can be taken to save the Darling River and prevent events such as the mass fish kill reoccurring,” Mr Buckingham said.
“It’s (the cotton industry’s) economic power should not mean that the environment and downstream users suffer from a lack of water.
"Buying back or abolishing the A-Class licences in the Barwon-Darling that have been hoovered up by the big cotton irrigators such as Websters, would prevent small to medium flows being captured in irrigation dams before they make their way down the Darling River.