Five years on, Murray Darling plan ‘eroded’

The trees are dead – what about the Plan?

It is five years ago today (22 November) since the announcement of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. But not everybody is happy.

The Basin Plan is the latest attempt to reconcile the many demands on water from the extensive river system. It was agreed to at the time by the six governments with jurisdiction over the Basin – Federal, NSW, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and the ACT. They are now squabbling, and many stakeholders say the Plan is not working.

The 2012 Plan grew out of the 2007 Water Act 2007, enacted by the Howard Government, which established the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) as an intergovernmental body to ensure that the Basin’s water resources are managed in an integrated and sustainable way.

The MDBA operates as an independent statutory authority, reporting to the Federal Minister for Agriculture. That was until recently Barnaby Joyce, former Deputy Prime Minister and head of the National Party, who is currently out of Parliament because of the citizenship issue.

The five year anniversary of the Basin Plan has been marked by statements from the Nature Conservation Council and Inland Rivers Network critical of the recent management of the plan, and urging that its original aims be fulfilled.

“We urgently need a Royal Commission into all the mismanagement of water occurring across the Basin and especially here in NSW,” said Nature Conservation Council CEO Kate Smolski. “It is critical to get the Basin Plan back on track and delivering the outcomes needed for a healthy river system and healthy communities that depend on it.”

Inland Rivers Network spokesperson Bev Smiles said: “On the fifth anniversary of the Basin Plan, there are four key outcomes we are asking for across the Basin:

  1. An independent Federal regulator of water management and compliance
  2. An ecologically sustainable river system
  3. Cultural flows and water rights
  4. Vibrant and diverse communities and economies.

Many of their concerns are based on allegations in the ABC’s Four Corners program in July that large scale ‘water theft’ was occurring, and that a senior NSW agriculture bureaucrat were colluding with upstream water users to thwart the Plan’s aims.

Subsequent investigations by the NSW Government revealed the truth of the allegations, and in September the deputy director-general of water at the NSW Department of Industry, Greg Hanlon, was forced to resign after it was found that he had shared confidential government information with irrigators to help them lobby against the Plan.

Both the Federal and NSW Governments have resisted calls for a formal inquiry, but concerns are growing about the viability of the plan in the face of what is believed to be concerted efforts to undermine it.

The South Australian Government has been extremely critical of the NSW Government in particular. SA Water Minister Ian Hunter has accused NSW of a cover up of ‘criminal water theft’ and has called for a Royal Commission.

The Murray–Darling system is one of the world’s larger river basins. It covers just over a million square kilometres, or 14 per cent of Australia’s land area. That is around the same area as Spain and France combined. It is home to more than two million people.

Total river length is 77,000 km, including Australia’s three longest rivers. It includes virtually all of inland NSW and the entire northern half of Victoria. It takes in the Darling Downs and the Warrego in Queensland, and South Australia’s Riverland.

At its eastern end is Australia’s capital city Canberra. The city stands on Lake Burley Griffin, which was formed by the dammed Molonglo River, which flows into the Murrumbidgee, the Murray’s greatest tributary.

The Basin produces one third of Australia’s food supply. It contains 40 percent of Australia’s farms and 70 percent of its irrigated farmland. It produces almost all of Australia’s rice and cotton and two thirds of its grapes. More than half Australia’s fruit is grown in the Basin, and it is home to nearly half the country’s sheep.

These remarkable statistics illustrate the Basin’s premier position as Australia’s most important agricultural area. It has been farmed intensively for over 150 years, much of it with extensive irrigation systems.

Successive governments overallocated the supply, and the ‘millennium drought’ of 2001-09 highlighted the inadequacies of the river system’s management.

The creation of the MDBA was the first time ever that the Basin was managed as a whole. The 2012 Basin Plan was seen as a significant step in the century old history of collective water planning and management in the Basin.

But now it is in trouble, with the NSW and Federal Governments seeking to change the Plan to give more water to farmers and return less to the river system for environmental purposes. On the evidence, they have already been parties to this happening illegally.

Barnaby Joyce, before he left Parliament, said the water theft allegations were not the Commonwealth’s problem, and the NSW Government has been largely silent on the issue. He also boasted to upriver farmers that they would get the water they wanted.

The problems are simmering and are likely to explode into a major issue. To many, it already is. Matters are likely to come to a head after the release next year of the Productivity Commission’s major inquiry into the reform of Australia’s water resources sector. The inquiry has received hundreds of submissions, many of them extremely critical of the current situation.

The draft report, released in September, said there is much more work to do and that reform priorities should  include “maintaining the key foundations of water management and preventing bad policy habits re‑emerging.”

That would not seem to be the case at the moment.

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