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Burke in hot water

Friday, 25th November, 2011

By Paula Doran

Federal Minister for Water, Tony Burke, is preparing for protests against water cuts outlined in the Murray-Darling Basin Draft plan.

Mr Burke said yesterday he did not expect consensus on water use, but it was an issue that could not be ignored any longer.

The controversial plan will be released on Monday by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) and has already caused a stir after its early “leaking” by unknown groups last week.

Among the predictions of what the Plan holds are that 50 billion litres of water will be taken off the allocations of primary producers and that 2800 billion litres will be put towards river health.

In The Age newspaper last week it was reported that farmers in the Condamine-Balonne system in Queensland would be short of 50 billion litres in irrigation water.

Reports suggested that cut meant the MDBA was likely to propose a basin-wide reduction to farmers’ water take of 2750 billion litres to return more water to the environment.

A leaked copy of the draft plan said an environmentally sustainable level would require a cut of 2800 billion litres of water across the basin.

The draft obtained by The Age says 1044 billion litres of water has already been recovered through the government’s $10 billion water buyback and infrastructure improvements, leaving 1706 billion litres under a 2800 billion-litre target.

Mr Burke defended the Plan yesterday.

“Across Australia, everyone understands the challenges we face in the driest inhabited continent,” he said.  

“In most of the country we have an ongoing cycle described as droughts and flooding rains. This cycle won’t change.

“It is a cycle which presents challenges for our food and fibre producers. It is a cycle felt acutely in the Murray-Darling Basin.

“The Draft Plan is required to be built on the foundations of the best available science and to optimise the environmental, social and economic incomes.”

Mr Burke said of the water which makes its way into Basin rivers and creeks, more than 40 per cent on average was diverted for human use.  

“We run our system hard. Inevitably in this debate, arguments will occur about whether a particular policy position is good for irrigators or good for environmentalists; good for South Australia or good for Victoria and New South Wales, for the ACT or Queensland.”

He said the debate about numbers and who gets what was guaranteed but of little help to the goal of reviving the river system.  

“A debate about numbers doesn’t answer the question about what we are trying to achieve ... a healthy, working Murray-Darling Basin.

“There has been a tendency to look at the extreme scenarios considering Murray-Darling Basin reform; the years of the deepest drought or the years of the highest flood.

“During drought, people have argued the case for reform as if we could prevent a future drought. And in the wet years, I hear it argued that there is plenty of water around and nature has fixed the problem so we don’t need water reform anymore.

“Murray-Darling Basin reform is about the in-between years because you need to keep the system healthy enough so it can approach the drought years with a level of resilience.

“This reform has been put in the too hard basket for too long.”

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