EXPERT REACTION: Murray Darling Basin plan in peril

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News reports today suggest that NSW and Victoria are threatening to leave the Murray Darling Basin plan after the senate blocked changes to the plan.

Organisation/s: Australian Science Media Centre

Expert Reaction

These comments have been collated by the Science Media Centre to provide a variety of expert perspectives on this issue. Feel free to use these quotes in your stories. Views expressed are the personal opinions of the experts named. They do not represent the views of the SMC or any other organisation unless specifically stated.

Professor Quentin Grafton is Professor of Economics and Director of the Centre for Water Economics and Policy at the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University and John Williams is Adjunct Professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University

Yet again fiction appears to be triumphing over fact. The facts are these:

(1) the disallowed amendment stops proposed changes to the Basin Plan, not the other way around. That is, the Commonwealth (with the full backing of NSW and Victoria) want to reduce the volumes of water recovered in the Darling River that was in the original Basin Plan. Thus, by not allowing this amendment to pass the original intent for water recovery in the Basin is unchanged.

(2) the amendment that was disallowed claims to be based on the ‘best available science’ yet, according to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, up to 75% of surface water extractions by irrigators in the Northern Basin are not even metered. There can be no credible science to support reductions in environmental water recovery when most of the water extracted by irrigators is not even metered.

(3) The Basin Plan was about increasing net stream flows by 2,750 billion litres per year despite the fact that the Sustainable Diversion Limits in the Basin Plan actually exceed the average annual surface water diversions in the last 1980s and early 1990s and the noughties. Thus, reducing this volume any more is contrary to key objects of the Water Act (2007), namely, “to ensure the return to environmentally sustainable levels of extraction for water resources that are over-allocated or overused”.

(4) The irrigator lobby group and the state water ministers’ objections to the disallowed amendment is all about money rather than water. The volume of water in the amendment is less than 1% of the annual average surface water diverted by irrigators in the Basin. What bothers them is that this disallowance may be the ‘thin edge of the wedge’ that will stop billions more of tax-payers dollars being wasted on efficiency and infrastructure projects that deliver virtually no public benefits, but provide very large private benefits to irrigators.

It’s time to lift open the bonnet and see what is really happening in the engine of the Basin. It’s time for a full, independent scientific and economic audit of the billions spent on water recovery, and what it has delivered. Until, and unless, such an independent scientific audit happens, no person who cares about the public interest can allow amendments that would both change the Basin Plan and reduce stream flows in the Basin.

Last updated: 15 Feb 2018 5:31pm
Willem Vervoort is Associate Professor Hydrology and Catchment Management at the Sydney Institute of Agriculture in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Sydney

The rejection of the changes to the Murray Darling Basin (MDB) plan without a negotiated agreement is disappointing and highlights the complexity of the task.

The MDB is a hugely complex river system, unique in the world, with a very diverse human and natural community dependent on its water for survival.

Collaboration and communication between the different states and the people is the only way forward, as none of the solutions for the Basin’s water problems are easy, and all will result in pain for some part of the community.

But this also means that the best solutions can only be achieved by negotiation, not by walking away from the process, such as NSW and Victoria threaten.

Despite its problems, the MDB plan is international best practice in integrated water resource management, and should be continued.

Support for best practice science to underpin decision-making remains a priority to better understand the impacts of climate change, drought and withdrawals on both nature and the environment.

Last updated: 15 Feb 2018 5:00pm
Professor Jennifer McKay is from UniSA’s Law School

The  concepts and objectives of the Water Act 2007 are to achieve ecologically sustainable development (ESD). This is complex but fundamentally - in law - it means putting the environment first. In politics, the term ESD gets interpreted as a balance and in the political process it favours the use of water for irrigation.

The flaw in the system is the administration and the reports show that some States have been tardy to draft their regional plans. The grand Murray Darling Plan (MDP) requires these to build the large plan.

The Federal Government has the power to step in and draft the State plans with the aim of achieving economically sustainable development.
The problem with the MDB plan is it goes back to the political settlement that created the nation. To achieve ESD we need to have cooperation between all tiers and goodwill to put the bigger picture ahead of short term gains. The present political cycles are just too short.
We need an empowered and funded body to oversee the negotiations between governments. 

Last updated: 15 Feb 2018 4:19pm
Professor Jeff Connor is Professor in Water Economics at UniSA

Threats to abandon the Murray Darling Basin Plan are supported by sentiments that set city against bush and irrigators. For example, Victoria’s Water Minister stated: ‘I've spent a lot of time in irrigation communities, they're doing it tough, they're critical to our economy, these towns are critical to Victoria.’ 
Actually, Parliament’s decision to allow 70 billion less litres of water diversions in the Murray Darling (since blocked in the Senate) is strongly supported by irrigators and towns downstream of Bourke. They copped the costs of changes last year, blocking water that had previously flowed down the Darling all the way to Broken Hill; and the costs of much more water extraction directly from the river at (allegedly) over licensed rates.
Further, some downstream households were denied what, under MDB water allocation rules, is supposed to be the highest priority water use: stock and domestic consumption. This lack of transparent deliberation isn’t fair to those who are deprived of secure water rights and leaves us uncertain: did changes really increase benefit or did downstream costs exceed the value of upstream benefit? Good public policy requires an open forensic audit process to establish who is benefiting and who is facing costs and how State and Federal implementation can improve.

Last updated: 15 Feb 2018 4:16pm
Professor Mike Young is Professor of Environmental and Water Policy at the Centre for Global Food and Resources at The University of Adelaide

Keep Calm and carry on.  Now is the time to focus on getting the accounting, monitoring, compliance and regional plans right.

The gap between the MDB Plan and the plans used to mismanage most of the world’s scarce water resources is huge. The MDB is close to having the very best system that can be put in place for the management of a large, variable and ever changing water resource.”

Now is the time to focus on improving the Plan’s concepts and water sharing rules. When the sharing rules are right, including the arrangements necessary to deal with the interception of overland flows, recording how much has been used and ground-surface water connectivity and salinity control, the numbers will fall out.

Last updated: 15 Feb 2018 4:11pm

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