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What's leaking up the River?

Wine

Philip White discovers nearly everybody wants to know what’s going down in Australia’s biggest, thirstiest, cheapest wine regions.

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Even before he sent us our anti-terror fridge magnets, Prime Minister John Howard promised us he’d start tipping money into saving the Murray-Darling Basin if we let him sell our telecommunications network to us.

“That will be the greatest ever capital investment in the environmental rebuilding of this country,” he said 20 years back (November ’97), guaranteeing the investment would “over time do more in a constructive way to regenerate the Australian environment than any other set of policy decisions that any government has ever undertaken”.

“And of course it will have employment implications in regional Australia.”

Implications? Regional Australia? This is a wine column. About 60 per cent of South Australia’s wine comes from Australia’s biggest wine region, the Riverland. There, more than 1000 growers manage 21,000 hectares of irrigated winegrape vineyards. In total, the region grows about 400,000 tonnes of grapes.

Through major pipelines this side of the border, the Murray-Darling also supplies water to Clare and the Barossa wine growers, and keeps the major Mount Lofty Ranges and Adelaide reservoirs supplied.

Apart from the Limestone Coast, that’s pretty much this state’s wine industry. It sure drinks a lot of water. There’s a lot more of it being squirted around further up and interstate, but we’re having an election down here right now. And it’s messy.

Yesterday, a formidable group of scientists and economists signed their Murray-Darling Basin Declaration. With it they issued a statement saying: “Some A$6 billion has been spent on ‘water recovery’ in the Murray-Darling Basin … some $4 billion has been spent on water recovery infrastructure projects [alone], but for many of these projects there is no scientific evidence that they have actually increased net stream flows, which was a key goal of water reform.

“It is time to call it like it is. Australia is paying the price of alleged water theft, questionable environmental infrastructure water projects, and policies that subsidise private benefits at the expense of taxpayers and sustainability.”

Quite some attention was afforded the Basin after June last year, when the ABC’s Four Corners peeled the lid from some of the alleged theft, but this focus soon faded from the public screen.

Referring way back to Howard’s time, the Basin Declaration signatories yesterday said: “Despite allocating half a billion dollars in 2007 to upgrade water meters in the Basin, as much as 75 per cent of all surface water diversions in the northern part of the Basin may still not have water meters.”

In their three demands, these prominent individuals call for a “comprehensive and independent audit of Basin water recovery to be published”, along with a publicly available, independent economic and scientific audit of the Basin’s current state, and ongoing, the establishment of an “adequately funded, expert, scientific and independent body to monitor, measure and give advice about delivery of the Water Act (2007)”.

These Declaration signatories made no mention of the Royal Commission that SA Premier Jay Weatherill called for last September.

“There are currently five separate investigations,” South Australian Minister for Water and the River Murray Ian Hunter said then,which have led to various jurisdictions and agencies all pointing the finger at one another.”

Hunter, who also holds the portfolios of Sustainability, Environment and Conservation, and Climate Change, said: “It is past time for a real investigation … a Royal Commission is the only credible way we can investigate the depth and the breadth of these allegations, and review the way we are managing one of our nation’s most precious resources.

“A Royal Commission would have the power to compel key witnesses and key individuals who are alleged to have rorted the Basin system and stolen our water.”

Federal Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources Anne Ruston, a Liberal Riverlander, called the Royal Commission another political “re-election stunt” set to “jeopardise” the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which I suggest is another reason in itself to actually find out what’s going on.

Shadow Minister for the Environment, Liberal David Speirs, reports a more conciliatory stance in his state-level conservatives.

“The state Liberals support the State Government’s Royal Commission into serious allegations of water theft from the Murray-Darling Basin,” Speirs told me yesterday.

“We need an independent inquiry to get to the bottom of the alleged systematic issues that are plaguing our most important river, hurting irrigators, regional communities and the environment.”

A spokesman for Nick Xenophon’s SA Best said: “Only an inquiry will sort this out.

“Nick was calling for an inquiry before Premier Weatherill suggested one. Only a thorough investigation will sort it out. One thing we’d be concerned about is withholding funding that might disadvantage our grape growers. But this rorting upstream must be stopped.”

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young referred to the more than three million Australians supported by the Basin: “Without any confidence that the Plan is delivering the lifeline the River and the environment needs, there’s no way we should be allowing the big corporate irrigators to get their hands on more water originally ear-marked for the environment,” she said yesterday.

“A full-independent audit of the Plan is urgently needed.”

Of course there are scientists who don’t agree with the authors of this Murray-Darling Basin Declaration. With the brevity typical of Twitter, Professor Ross Thompson,  director of the Institute for Applied Ecology at the University of Canberra, stated: “The scientific facts simply don’t support the ‘Declaration’ – and the authors fail to provide any realistic policy alternative.”

Which would seem to me be a good reason to proceed with the inquiry everybody seems to want, if only we could agree on its type.

“If in doubt go hard” would be the right investigatory line to me.

Whatever your line, there’s no doubt that there’s room for a lot more forensic study of our Big Rivers, ongoing, and it would be cool to see the four parties running for election here co-operating with these eminent scholars on a full-bore inquiry before another single dollar or drip of water dribbles away.

Minister Hunter’s response is all positive:  “A healthy and sustainable Murray-Darling will be crucial to the long-term sustainability of Riverland wine grape growers,” he said this morning.

“The Weatherill Government is standing up for the River Murray and supports Australia’s leading water scientists in their call for action and greater independent transparency in the funding, delivery and monitoring of the Basin Plan.

“Only the Weatherill Government’s Royal Commission will be able to examine the allegations of corruption, collusion and water theft risking the future of Australia’s most important river system.”

Which leads me to, ahem, this little postscript about, er, Global Warming.

While smart vignerons from all over Australia’s mainland are scouring cool green Tasmania for prospective vineyard sites, those left in the hot hinterland, like the Mallee, or the Basin from Blanchetown to Burke, are stonkered trying to work out which premium wine grape varieties can profitably survive there.

With wine grapes, more heat requires more water, but these steepening curves on the graph very quickly tumble when things reach a certain point.

Fear of this reality could well be our worst terror within. Maybe the independent inquiry/commission/audit/investigation should also address the likelihood of viticulture’s survival in this hot arid inland. Some hard science, please.

And some duly estimated timelines.

It’s gonna take a lot more than fridge magnets and name-calling to fix this.

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