Louise Burge: A campaign using claims of a dead and dying Murray River to gain more water for South Australia.
Playing politics can ruin people’s lives.
My statement to the NSW Legislative Council regarding the Federal Water Act, the Murray Darling Basin Authority [MDBA] and the Basin Plan is not just about irrigators; it is about how governments of all persuasions fail people, and how playing politics can ruin people’s lives. It is a description of where taxpayers’ funds have been wasted.
The most successful marketing campaign in Australia’s history, to gain more water for South Australia.
The Millennium drought should have created renewed interest in securing water supplies; instead, New South Wales surrendered its share of Australia’s major water assets in the southern basin. When we look at the Murray-Darling Basin area, New South Wales contains approximately 75 per cent, Victoria 15 per cent, Queensland 15 per cent and South Australia 6.7 per cent. Of the 2,750 gigalitres removed from productive use in the Basin Plan, 2,289 gigalitres is coming from the Darling and Murrumbidgee Rivers and NSW’s share of Murray river water. The Basin Plan will increase South Australia’s long-term average natural flow of 5,100 gigalitres by another 2,000 gigalitres.
At the heart of these changes is the most successful marketing campaign in Australia’s history—Using claims of a dead and dying Murray River, Coorong and Lower Lakes, and a closed Murray Mouth, to gain more water for South Australia.
There are many unanswered Questions.
There is a range of unanswered questions: Has the State of New South Wales properly investigated the issues before accepting the loss of its water resources? Will spending $13 billion deliver sustainable outcomes for the end of the system? Will the decision only affect irrigators? Has the MDBA acted as an independent authority? Why did the MDBA cover up warnings? Why did the MDBA mislead governments? And why could not South Australia live within its existing minimum entitlement flow of 1,850 gigalitres and its current long term average flow of 5,100?
In over 20 years of involvement in natural resource management, I am appalled at the government policy processes and how the departments operate!
The Basin Plan is not an environmental plan, it is a political plan.
There are solutions to this political nightmare, but honesty has to be the foundation principle. This is not an environmental plan—it is a political plan—and I am pleading with you to put aside your political differences and find out for yourselves why so much concern is continuing about the Murray Darling Basin Authority and the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
The creek and river systems of the Murray, particularly right through from the Murray to the Edward and Wakool rivers are highly environmentally valued assets. That is where all the fish breed – not in the lower lakes in South Australia, which are full of European carp.
So we are more than happy to work with governments on environmental flows, but allow us to help with the decisions, the solutions, and not have imposed government policy, which is causing mistake after mistake after mistake.
Mistakes are filtering through management.
We need to look at solutions, and I will give you one example of a solution. South Australia receives an additional salt dilution flow where water is released out of Menindee and wasted. Why? It dates back to the 1980s salinity modeling audit where they predicted that 17 million hectares of dry land salinity was going to cause this mass salinization of the Murray River. The model was wrong. And I think everybody acknowledges this. However, the information is still embedded in the system. Thus when the South Australian Premier talks about two million tonnes of salt entering the Murray River and runs a political campaign on that, the mistake is still filtering through. We have a system where the South Australian salt dilution flow rule should be abandoned and used as an SDL (Sustainable Diversion Limit) offset.
Another example is in the Upper South East Drainage Scheme in South Australia. When the Federal Government funded the Upper South East Drainage and Flood Mitigation Scheme, it put a rule in place. It was a condition of funding from the Federal Government to the South Australian Government that no more than 40,000 megalitres on a ten-year average could flow into the Coorong. That rule is still in place. You think about that rule. Are we not decimating communities in New South Wales to provide water to the Coorong, which we know is not physically going to be capable of getting there. If anyone has studied the lower end of the system, they know that not only are there barrages there, but there are also tidal windows and wind, and all sorts of things. The water is not going to get into the Coorong. But we have these continuing ineffectual processes and political decisions.
I go back to my marketing comment, it is about marketing. It was very clever marketing.
So why are we not looking at restoring some of the south-east drains? There are two drainage schemes; the main one, the South East Drainage Scheme, and the Upper South East Drainage Scheme. Why are we beholden to a rule that prevents water going from South Australia into the Coorong, and yet taking the water from 225 kilometres upstream from the Murray to do so?
As I said, on the Murray we are the most regulated, but we in the southern basin are the ones that are wearing the majority of the burden of water recovery under the basin plan and there are all these unthoughtabout consequences: water pricing impacts, planning impacts, riparian impacts, flooding impacts. It is just insane.
NSW has given management of its water to an Authority that appears to be biased towards South Australia.
What New South Wales is doing is really giving up its water resource to an authority that I believe has not demonstrated its independence. I can pick up a range of documents from South Australia and I can see those documents mirrored in the MDBA documents and the MDBA decisions. I give an example: here is a technical report, “Development of flow regimes to manage water quality in the Lower Lakes, South Australia”. In this document it says after taking into account inflows into the lakes, local extractions, evaporations et cetera, to achieve 1,000 EC (Electrical Conductivity – a measurement of salt content) water quality in Lake Alexandrina, they need 2,850 gigalitres. That was in May 2010; the guide to the basin plan came out in October 2010. This is just one of many documents where South Australian information has gone into the deliberations of the MDBA. I ask a question: If they were truly independent, why did they not review and reassess and, indeed, gain their own information? Because 2,850 sounds very much like the 2,750 gigalitres demanded in the MDBA Basin Plan.
At the end of the day I come back to this marketing campaign, and it was pretty damned good.
Our forefathers designed the system from the Hume Weir to the border on what they knew was feasible and practical. They took into account the Victorian irrigation schemes, the New South Wales irrigation schemes. They took into account the height of the riverbanks below tide. The MDBA is seeking to reverse that and simply change the rules.
NSW gave up its power, but retains liability – It should have more control over its water asset.
I find it extraordinary that New South Wales gave up its powers. I think that is one of the fundamental problems because you now have the absurd situation where you have a Federal Murray-Darling Basin Authority that technically controls the Murray River, but the Federal Government denies any responsibility. If the MDBA does anything wrong, the MDBA denies responsibility. So ultimately New South Wales will wear the liability. Surely if the State of New South Wales wears the liability it should have more control over the assets that are affecting its constituents.