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A torrent of trouble

Saturday, 19th November, 2011

By Paula Doran

It began with a leak and mounted to a flood in just 24 hours, leaving bureaucrats, green groups and politicians up in arms at the early announcement of the most anticipated water policy in decades.

Despite being set for an official launch on November 28, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s (MDBA) draft plan for water use for Australia’s food bowl has confirmed environmentalists’ worst fears.

Just 2800 gigalitres of water will be allocated for river health, down from 3,400 gigalitres in the original guide.

How the full plan was leaked to the ABC’s Lateline program has not been explained, though some green groups claim it was a deliberate act by the MDBA to discredit them.

But the MDBA’s chairman Craig Knowles blamed the environmentalists.  

“I would make the point that of all the groups we have briefed - and we have briefed dozens and dozens - only the environmental and conservation movements have chosen to talk to the media in the middle of the briefing,” Mr Knowles said.

Darling River Action Group (DRAG) spokesman, Barney Stevens, said he was not surprised that the much anticipated document had been leaked and described the reaction as a “storm in a tea cup.”

“The MDBA has been giving briefings to farmers, irrigators, environmentalists and others for weeks. So far I haven’t heard anything from the latest ‘leak’ that wasn’t already public,” said Mr Stevens.

“I’ve been to countless meetings on this where we’ve been given verbal information on the proposed plan, but this takes it to another level.

“It has been the MDBA’s policy to let people know what is coming, so there will be no surprises... although it is a little surprising that the Government intends to spend most of its $10 billion on infrastructure that won’t return much water to the rivers, rather than on buy-backs that could have returned enough water to the rivers to assure their health.” 

Federal MP, Sussan Ley, has called on Mr Knowles and Federal Water Minister, Tony Burke, to come to the far west and explain the impact of the latest plan to local communities.

Ms Ley said the leaking of the draft plan exposed what the Authority tried to cover up last year...”that is the potential death sentence this imposes on small towns and communities in NSW if the reforms go ahead unchecked.

“This could kill off many communities, particularly in the south of Farrer. They may as well come down and put up the ‘for sale’ sign now.”

The report says the removal of 2,800 gigalitres from Basin allocations “could result in a number of social changes, loss of population, change in community identity, increased mental health problems and higher demand for social services.”

From this, the NSW Irrigators Council predicts state-wide job losses of up to 15,000 people.  

“I can tell you where the majority of those will come from - right here,” Ms Ley said.

“Mr Knowles looked us in the eye in June and promised local community consultation with this plan when it was released. Well, he better hop on his bike and get down here real fast because there is plenty of explaining to do.”

“He knows there are better ways to go about preserving the future integrity of the Murray Darling and I’m damned if Tony Burke, one-eyed environmentalists, the Conservation Foundation or anyone else is going to kill us off without a fight,” Ms Ley said. 

Arlene Buchan from the Australian Conservation Foundation said the authority was trying to find a figure that will keep everyone happy but that the river needed more than that. 

“There is no future in a dead river,” she said. “We have to return more water to those rivers and the best science is telling us that about 4,000 gigalitres of water a year needs to be returned to the basin to ensure a healthy future for the people who live there and rely on those rivers for their livelihoods.” 

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