Tensions could reach boiling point if more water is taken

November 29, 2016

This is the column to read if you want a general understanding of the Murray Darling Basin Plan, and what it means for us, and you are not inclined to be drawn into the technically complex explanations and arguments put forward (very well) in the Country News.

The Murray Darling Basin is the area that drains Australia’s longest river system.

For many years, there has been an un-coordinated approach to the Basin, as there are the competing priorities of five states and territories, and the Commonwealth.

The process to manage the river system began under the Howard government and was finalised and signed into law by the Gillard government in 2012.

Why did we need a plan?

The millennium drought from 2002 to 2009 showed that a river system with significantly reduced water flows had a severe detrimental effect on the environment.

There was a risk of the river system dying altogether, and once this happens it is very hard (if not impossible) to rejuvenate.

It was found that irrigation entitlements were over allocated, and that water needed to be returned to a body called the ‘environmental water holder’, to be able to add to river flows to maintain river health.

Some groups wanted minimal water returned to the environment, some environmental groups wanted very large amounts returned.

In the end, it was decided that 2750 gigalitres (GL) of water would be returned over the entire Murray Darling Basin. A gigalitre is one billion litres of water. Victoria’s share of this target was 1075 GL.

A great proportion has been recovered. It has come at a cost, and some benefits, with on farm and delivery irrigation infrastructure improved.

The problem is that the next time we face a drought, there is less water available to irrigate our crops. Farmers do not own as much permanent irrigation entitlement as they used to, so they are relying on buying temporary entitlement. The Goulburn Murray District used to operate with over 2000 GL, next dry season it may be reduced to 400GL.

We have the potential to get by and grow if no more water is taken from our consumptive pool. If more water is taken from the region our agricultural industries, especially dairy, are under threat. Two key factors are at play in further water removal: ‘up water’ and ‘environmental offsets’.

Up Water

Before the Murray Darling Basin plan was signed, a deal was done between the Commonwealth and the South Australian government for 450 GL (in addition to the existing 2750 GL specified by the plan) could be returned to the environment for the benefit of the lower lakes at the Murray River mouth.

The fine print on this agreement was that it would have to pass a ‘socio-economic neutrality test’.

But neither governments nor the Murray Darling Basin authority had a framework, or any socio-economic impact studies to assess this.

The GMID water leadership forum, co-chaired by the Committee for Greater Shepparton, commissioned an independent report and found the Murray Darling Basin plan has already had negative impacts on the GMID, and any further removal of water would exacerbate this.

Federal Water Minister Barnaby Joyce and Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville have made this clear to the South Australians. But we are in for a bruising fight in 2017.

Environmental Offsets

There is provision in the plan for the target of actual water to be returned to the environment to be reduced by 650 GL by ‘offset’ measures.

These are actions that can achieve environmental outcomes without just acquiring and flushing more water down the river.

Time needs to be allowed to develop environmental offsets to the 650 GL target, and beyond.

At the time of the Murray Darling Basin plan development a triple bottom line outcome was the slogan quoted by many.

This was a commitment that any plan would balance the interests of the environment, the economy and society.

The GMID Water leadership forum has come to the position that two significant policy levers can be pulled to ensure the plan does this: the first is to ensure that the full 650 GL of environmental offsets is delivered.

The second is to accept that further water removal will have a negative socio-economic impact on the southern basin and take the 450 GL of up water for South Australia off the table.

 - Sam Birrell

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