EXPERT REACTION: Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission
Organisation/s: The University of Sydney, The Australian National University, Southern Cross University, The University of Adelaide, The University of Melbourne, CRC for Future Fuels, University of Queensland
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.
Chris Perry, Emeritus Editor in Chief, Agricultural Water Management says that this Royal Commission report “is a remarkable contribution, addressing problems that face many water-short countries. Successful water resources management can only be built on our best understanding of hydrology—how water “works”. That understanding—complemented by the observation of actual outcome—informs and guides the interventions we make in infrastructure and management, and equally importantly sets the boundaries to political choices. Science, then is fundamental but only has full effect when it is public, and when those responsible to interpret what science tells us are prepared to speak truth to power.”
I, like Chris Perry see the Murray Darling Basin Royal Commission report as a most impressive and comprehensive analysis and legal documentation of how the wonderful intent and aspirations of the Commonwealth Water Act in 2007, written to bring healing and health to the working rivers of the Basin, were systematically eroded, lost and destroyed in the final design and subsequent implementation of the Basin Plan.
The report documents a national tragedy. It brings to light our failure as Australians to put in place water reform at a level of change necessary to drive the sustainable use of our working rivers.
Importantly the report documents how the excellence of Australian Science in hydrology, ecology, economics and the social sciences were either ignored, manipulated or used in a controlling manner that did not foster open , national and international peer review and open public scrutiny. Science flourishes with open enquiry, peer review and public scrutiny.
The report is therefore not only a powerful truth-telling of great importance, but it comprehensively and wisely sets down pathways to recover and reaffirm our aspirations and hopes as Australians to find new ways to restore healthy working rivers. The first steps forward and the findings of the Royal Commission are consistent with the criticisms of the management of the Murray-Darling put forward a year ago by independent scientists and economists in the Murray Darling Declaration. This called for:
· A halt to all publicly-funded water recovery associated with irrigation infrastructure subsidies/grants in the Murray-Darling Basin, until a comprehensive and independent audit of Basin water recovery is published;
· A publicly available, comprehensive and independent economic and scientific audit of all completed Basin water recovery and a full scientific review of planned Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustments including details of environmental water recovered, expenditures and actual environmental outcomes (to date and projected), especially the effects on Basin stream flows, including at the Murray Mouth, and on floodplain inundation; and
· An adequately funded, expert, scientific and independent body to monitor, measure and give advice about delivery of the Water Act (2007) including: spatial and temporal hydrological and environmental changes in the Basin; comprehensive economic and scientific audits of the costs, benefits and outcomes of the Basin Plan and water recovery; river-scale assessments of effectiveness of measured water use from rivers and on floodplains; and evaluations of the adequacy of State river management and regulation to fully deliver the Water Act (2007).
These are the first steps on the road to recovery. A journey to secure healthy rivers that continue to provide our food and fibre while maintaining their ecological functions which can support other industries and enterprises along with our recreational and spiritual needs as first and second people of this living continent.
While good science should be a key ingredient of water planning in the Murray-Darling Basin, the concept of scientifically determined ‘Environmental Water Requirements’ that underpins the Water Act and Basin Plan process is deeply flawed. Science cannot determine how much water a river (or wetland or fish species) needs without having clear and specific objectives and these can only be determined with social, cultural and political contributions. Otherwise, asking what a river’s ‘Environmental Water Requirements’ are is akin to asking how long is a piece of string?
The ‘Environmental Water Requirements’ concept and its use in water planning also highlights some widespread misconceptions about the Basin’s ecology. For example, wetland ecosystems and species in the Basin are rarely dependent on, or have evolved in response to, highly specific flow regimes and are instead typically very opportunistic, resilient and adaptive. Similarly, there is little evidence that hydrological ‘tipping points’ exist beyond which the survival of wetland species will cease. There is no optimal state for our wetland ecosystems or species and their health cannot be objectively measured.
Science can, however, inform us about likely environmental outcomes of different water management scenarios. Our choices about which to pursue though remain thoroughly political.
There’s more to our rivers than water
Recent tragic fish kills have raised widespread concern about water management in the Murray-Darling Basin. We should not forget, however, that the responses of river species and ecosystems to drought and heatwaves are influenced by much more than just water management. Riparian vegetation plays a particularly important role in river ecosystem function, especially in arid landscapes. Riparian vegetation can shade watercourses, reducing in-stream temperatures and limiting light available to algae. Riparian vegetation also provides critical habitat and food for aquatic and terrestrial species as well as influencing river hydrology, water quality and geomorphology.
Throughout the Murray-Darling Basin, riparian vegetation has been subjected to many human pressures – clearing, grazing, spraying and species’ invasions – as well as altered flow regimes. We currently have very little knowledge of the condition of riparian vegetation in the Basin, especially in the north. Considerable scientific evidence suggests, however, that revegetating degraded riparian zones can have multiple and widespread benefits for river species, ecosystems and catchments as well as for human livelihoods and well-being. In planning for a more resilient Murray-Darling Basin, it is therefore crucial that we do not overlook the importance of good riparian management.
The report reflects on many of the things that the research community has been collectively saying about the implementation of the Basin Plan.
The report brings a real clarity in its overview of interpretations of pertinent sections of the Water Act.
The sections on Aboriginal consultation, engagement and involvement are refreshing, long overdue and a step in the right direction. The report points out that the Water Resource Plans are an opportunity to provide appropriate recognition and direct involvement of Aboriginal people in the management of water resources.
An important highlight is the acknowledgement of the Triple Bottom Line myth. The MDBA’s interpretation is that a TBL approach could be used to justify recovering less water if doing so would benefit farming, therefore the economy and therefore society (p.20). Looking back, the Royal Commission suggests the point at which the MDBA erred (p.177) was in reasoning the selection of scenarios should be from optimising social, economic and environmental outcomes.
For economists, repeal of the current legislative cap on buyback of 1,500GL is a welcome recommendation. Acknowledgement of the cost efficiencies of buyback vs. infrastructure came through clearly – the Royal Commission heard the message from economists that there is no justification for the additional public expense of efficiency measures. The Report suggests that the negative impact on communities of water buybacks has been overstated and the non-market benefits to society of restoration have been ignored.
The Report calls for transparency and disclosure of information and modelling – this is all very welcome. Likewise independent oversight and auditing of the implementation of the Basin Plan and the development of WRPs remains an important issue. These themes resonate through the report.
Professor Michael Stewardson is Professor of Hydrology and Water Resources at the University of Melbourne
The MDB Royal Commission concludes that the plan failed to protect enough water for the environment. This finding challenges a central principle that has underpinned Australia's successful water reforms over the last two decades – that water reform is necessarily a slow and incremental process. The idea is that initial success builds support for further deeper reforms.
If reforms advance too quickly, public support collapses and the reform will wither. The development of water markets, which Commissioner Walker lauds, followed this process and took two decades to reach their current levels. The Basin Plan calls for a 15 per cent reduction in irrigation diversions with a review point in 2024. This is a large volume of water by any measure. It is reasonable to ask whether a bigger initial step is achievable.
Professor Quentin Grafton is Chairholder, UNESCO Chair in Water Economics and Transboundary Water Governance at the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University. He is signatory to The Murray-Darling Declaration (https://murraydeclaration.org/) and formerly served as the Chair of the Socio-Economics Reference panel for the Murray-Darling Basin Commission
The Royal Commission has provided an outstanding service to the nation. It has cut through the empty phrases uttered ad nauseam by our political leaders and those who benefit from the largesse. For instance, it exposes the phrase that delivery of the Basin Plan “in full and on time” is empty of meaning and, as implemented to date, will fail to deliver the law of the land, the Water Act 2007.
Importantly, the Royal Commission states that there has been an “unfathomable predilection for secrecy. That is the bane of good science and an obstacle to the democratic and informed design and improvement of public policy” (P. 16). Indeed, the Royal Commission places the Murray-Darling Basin Authority that is charged with implementing the 2012 Basin Plan as the chief culprit.
In sum, the Royal Commission provides a forensic indictment of both federal and state leadership and those senior public servants who have deliberately subverted the stated objectives of the Water Act 2007.
If there were any doubt that Australians have been lied to and hoodwinked about water reform, this report is the evidence. It is a clinical dispatch of the falsehoods perpetuated for too long and that have resulted in the recent Menindee Lakes/Darling River fish kills. Without real change at the MDBA and with our leaders, the unfolding (and predicted) disaster affecting our greatest rivers, and the heart of our nation, will continue.
It is a tragedy that many millions of dollars have been spent for so long on the management of the Murray Darling Basin, and yet we still see multiple examples of how things are going wrong.
Of course this is a hugely complex system with challenges manifested at all geographical scales, but nevertheless, surely we could do better if we could all agree that managing rivers, for river health, should be the priority, rather than managing them for economic benefit or political gain.
Rivers are a cornerstone of our life support system, and without healthy rivers, our entire food system will collapse. As producers, consumers, recreational users and politicians, we need to put individual self interest behind us, and work towards a common goal.
The 44 recommendations in the weighty tome that is the report of the Royal Commission sum this up. If just half of these recommendations could be followed, a much better future for the basin is likely to ensue. For example, better monitoring of water use and widespread introduction of smart metering systems would help a lot, along with a more realistic allocation of agricultural water use, and even reconsideration of water pricing schemes.
We have to live with the climate we face, and we know this will often be unfavourable, but perhaps with more proactive, adaptive, locally-driven management actions, incidents such as the massive fish kills we now see in the Darling could possibly be avoided.
A thorough report whose many recommendations are worthy of careful consideration.
The findings of the Royal Commission are consistent with the criticisms of the management of the Murray-Darling put forward a year ago by independent scientists and economists in the Murray Darling Declaration.
In particular, the secretive and unaccountable processes associated with funding for water recovery projects have led to a massive waste of public money while doing little or nothing for the long-term sustainability of either irrigation or the environment. We need an immediate halt to these projects, and a comprehensive science-based reassessment of the needs of the river system
Associate Professor Willem Vervoort is Associate Professor of Hydrology and Catchment Management at The University of Sydney
The royal commission report, released today, points to significant failures at several levels in the determination of the MDB plan. It is heartbreaking to see that the Commissioner has highlighted that ignoring scientific advice, and insufficient funding of follow up science and monitoring, has led to many of the adverse outcomes. Improved incorporation of the findings of open, publicly accessible, and reproducible science (and including socio-economic science) will be paramount to assist with an equitable and sustainable future for the basin. Policy and science should work together in tandem to develop an improved plan and set of actions, even if we sometimes don’t like the future that science sets out. Because of the large inertia in both policy and natural systems, this report is another warning that acting early on scientific findings can save us a lot of problems later.
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