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Hostile reception

Tuesday, 29th November, 2011

‘THE WAY FORWARD’: Murray-Darling Basin Authority chairman Craig Knowles at a press conference in Canberra yesterday where he revealed the plan for the river system. ‘THE WAY FORWARD’: Murray-Darling Basin Authority chairman Craig Knowles at a press conference in Canberra yesterday where he revealed the plan for the river system.

By Paula Doran

The Darling River has been hung out to dry by the document that could reshape water use across the Murray-Darling Basin.

That’s according to Darling River Action Group (DRAG) spokesman, Barney Stevens, who claimed yesterday’s long-awaited release of the proposed water Plan from the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) was skewed towards irrigators and was bad news for the Darling and its floodplains.

Mr Stevens has been critical in the build up to yesterday’s release, but said he was even more surprised than expected at the small amount of water that would be returned to the Darling for environmental purposes.  

“The Plan really targets environmental extractions on the Murrumbidgee, the Murray and the Goulburn and almost totally ignores the Darling.  

“They must think the Darling’s too ineffective and they’ve not bothered with it.”

The Plan says there should be larger releases from Weir 32 in Menindee, suggesting that increasing flow height would benefit the environment and also deliver more water downstream to the Murray.

As released in the leaked copy of the draft Plan last week, environmental flows basin-wide were confirmed yesterday at just 2800 gigalitres.

The Australian Conservation (ACF) condemned that figure, stating the Plan fails the river, towns and the national interest by not doing enough to secure the health of the Basin’s rivers.

“A good Basin Plan must set out how to return the river system to health so that it is not being poisoned by salt, so that it flows and is alive,” said ACF Healthy Ecosystems Program Manager, Paul Sinclair.

“Anything less threatens the future of the river and the communities that rely on it.

“This draft Plan fails the river, regional communities and our national interest because it doesn’t do enough to flush the salt out through the Murray mouth, revive dying wetlands and keep the country’s lifeblood, the Murray- Darling, flowing.

“There’s no future and there are no jobs on a dead river,” said Mr Sinclair.

“Rivers die from the bottom up. South Australian communities will be hardest hit if the government fails to deliver an effective plan.

“The Basin Plan must serve the national interest, not just the interests of big irrigation industries and their lobby groups and financial backers.

Mr Sinclair said Federal Water Minister Tony Burke should send the plan back to the Authority and tell it to prepare one that will return enough water to give the Murray a good chance of returning to health, and detail how this can be achieved over the next decade.

The ACF demanded higher volumes of water in the order of 4000 to 5000 gigalitres for the environmental needs of the river system.

The Plan was widely condemned as the day wore on. Water researcher Dr Jamie Pittock from the Crawford School of Economics and Government at the Australian National University was among a number of scientists who said the new Plan was worse than last year’s “Guide”.

“Action is needed now to restore the extensive areas of degraded freshwater ecosystems, whereas the government’s intention to implement this plan in 2019-24 is likely to be too late,” said Dr Pittock.

“The amount of water to be reallocated (2,800 GL) is insufficient to sustain significant areas of freshwater to be reallocated.”  

Dr Pittock said the draft Plan makes inadequate allowances for the loss of water expected via climate change and relied on good management through small scale engineering works that would try and spread smaller volumes of water further.  “This is risky for the environment on a number of levels.”

Peak agricultural lobby groups from across Basin also condemned the Plan. 

A collective, including the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF), National Irrigators Council, AgForce Queensland, Queensland Farmers’ Federation, NSW Irrigators Council, NSW Farmers’ Association, Victorian Farmers’ Federation, Australian Dairy Farmers, Cotton Australia and the Ricegrowers’ Association also expressed their disappiontment.

“For nearly a decade we’ve been promised balance between social, economic and environmental impacts,” said the NFF’s Cief Executive Officer Matt Linnegar.

“The Guide last year did not deliver that balance and now, after another 12 months, the draft has also failed to live up to promises made. 

“It is very disappointing for industry groups across the Murray-Darling Basin that our concerns have not been taken into account. For the communities, the family farms and the local businesses across the Basin, the result is more than disappointing - their very futures are on the line. 

“We have said, and said consistently, that the Basin Plan needs to be about outcomes, not numbers.

“The 2,750 gigalitres contained in the Plan, plus the water historically set aside for the environment, means the environment has a significant amount of water at its disposal. The impact of this will be job losses, closure of family farms, hardships for regional communities and increases in fresh food prices.

“This should be about outcomes: about achieving a healthy environment, vibrant communities and prosperous regional economies. All three of these outcomes are equally essential, and the Plan must not achieve environmental outcomes at the expense of the economic and social outcomes. 

“It’s up to Minister Burke to intervene to deliver a balanced Plan.”

In the Federal seat of Farrer, Sussan Ley concurred, describing the Plan as detrimental to far west communities.  

“I described last year’s Guide as an act of sabotage and nothing has changed.”

“It’s lazy work from the Authority. One year on and we’re even less clear on which valleys will have water taken from them, other than 85 per cent of the Basin’s south copping most of the pain,” said Ms Ley.

Downstream in South Australia the Government is considering a High Court challenge against the Plan which the Premier described as unfair to users at the lower end of the river system.

Jay Weatherill said the allocation cuts proposed were inadequate. He said the NSW and Victorian Governments had shown a lack of respect for the river over decades and SA was paying the price.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the MDBA, Craig Knowles, was possibly the only one happy with the Plan yesterday, dubbing it the next step in restoring balance to the basin. 

“After nine months of talking to people across the Basin and listening to their ideas I am confident we can move toward a sensible and balanced plan,” Mr Knowles said.

“This is simply the next step in the ongoing journey of water reform and builds on a lot of good work that has already been done.

“Our plan is flexible and will allow us to monitor and adapt. It’s a plan that will achieve important environmental objectives and is a pathway forward that allows us all to continue to learn and build on our knowledge about how to better manage the Murray-Darling Basin for all of its values. 

“But there is still more to do. Managing a basin of this size which crosses borders; and where there are many different operating rules, landscapes, and climates means there is no easy or quick fix. 

“I urge people to take the time to read the draft and get involved in the 

consultations and have their say.” 

The public has 20 weeks to respond to the Basin Plan which can be found in full on the MDBA website: www.mdba.gov.au Formal submissions close on April 16.

Public meetings will be held in towns across the Basin including Shepparton, Griffith and Deniliquin. Dates for meetings in Mildura and Broken Hill are expected to be announced in the new year.





OUTFLOW: More water will be taken from Menindee lakes for the Murray River.


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