Monday, 21 November 2011
Later this month, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority is expected to hand down its long-awaited Basin Plan. Whilst what is presented may not be the final determination of the plan, it will nevertheless provide valuable insight into what the final proposal may look like. The plan will have consequences for all Australians but mostly for the irrigators and communities within the basin, whose livelihoods and futures are very much dependent on the basin and the waters within it.
The strain on and anxiety of people within the basin became abundantly clear at the height of the last drought and in their reaction to the authority's guide to the plan, released for public discussion in 2010. That anxiety was also clearly evident when the House Standing Committee on Regional Australia carried out its Murray-Darling Basin inquiry between November 2010 and June of this year. As a supplementary member of the committee for the purposes of that inquiry I travelled throughout the basin with other committee members. I saw for myself, and heard from countless individuals and community groups, the basin issues. By the end of the inquiry, it became very clear to me that the existing water management plans were often outdated, inefficient and unsustainable. It was also clear that a whole-of-basin management plan was required and that allowing the system to continue in its existing state was not an option, nor was it in anyone's interest. A decade of drought, with record low inflows into the Murray-Darling system, had finally brought this issue to a head. Each of the competing interests within the basin—the irrigators, the environmentalists and each of the states—argue their case strongly. Each blames the others for the current state of affairs.
After almost 100 years, the Murray River agreement of 1915, even with its subsequent amendments, is simply outdated. Over the past 50 years, overallocations, inflow diversions and poor regulation and monitoring by individual states have left the system unsustainable. Until the 1960s, the system had functioned reasonably well. The installation of locks between 1922 and 1935, the construction of barrages at the Lower Lakes in the 1940s and the construction of the Hume Dam had enabled much better regulation of the waters available. Only in drought years would there have been any shortage of water, and I am not aware of any restrictions to irrigators prior to the last drought.
For South Australians, the release of the authority's recommendations is of particular interest because South Australia, being at the end of the system, is very much dependent on what happens upstream. For South Australian irrigators, who in recent decades have modernised their irrigation systems and in whose state, since 1969, extractions have been capped, there is little room for further efficiencies. They will draw on very little of the government's $5.8 billion irrigation efficiency funds. Conversely, in New South Wales and Victoria, the number of irrigation licences has almost doubled since 1969. The construction of on-farm dams in southern Queensland and New South Wales have reduced inflows into the system and have compounded the problem.
There will never be consensus on how much water must be returned to the system, because in reality the figure is dependent on yearly inflows, which fluctuate from year to year, as do the quantities extracted by the irrigators. Other climate factors, particularly temperature, also affect how much water needs to be returned to the system.
I well understand that many of the irrigators in New South Wales and Victoria who have established their farms since 1969 and, through no fault of their own, now rely on their full water entitlements will suffer if their entitlements are cut back. But the facts are clear. Firstly, since 1969, South Australia has not increased its extractions and has not contributed to the overextractions. Secondly, the barrages have been there since 1940, decades prior to the overextractions. Regardless of the debates about whether the Lower Lakes were previously freshwater or seawater, the Lower Lakes and the barrages were not the cause of the overlicensing. Thirdly, South Australia extracts only around 625 gigalitres per annum, about seven per cent of the total water taken.
For South Australia, any proposal which cuts water entitlements to irrigators or to the Lower Lakes will be a huge let-down and disappointment. Any water returns to the river upstream will be of no use to South Australia unless sufficient flows of water are maintained across the South Australian border to deliver the entitlements to riverland irrigators and maintain the health of the Lower Lakes. I know that many communities await with interest the Murray-Darling Basin Authority report next week, but none more so than all South Australians.