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SA will be the loser if we blow up the Murray Basin plan

Opinion

The are problems with the Murray Darling Basin Plan, writes South Australian senator Tim Storer, but the state will be worse off if the current rancorous debate results in a return to a free-for-all on Australia’s precious water resources.

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It is helpful to remember the words of former Prime Minister John Howard, who in 2007 stated that: “As water becomes more scarce and subject to greater demands, it is imperative that we can accurately measure and monitor the resource and its use. This applies equally at the national and basin scales, as well as for individual farms.”

Unfortunately, as water has become scarcer and subject to greater demands, we have not accurately measured and monitored the resource and its use. That has created an environment of mistrust and caused serious environmental consequences, such as the recent fish kills in Menindee Lakes.

But we should not give up on the Murray Darling Basin Plan. The plan can be improved from the inside out, rather than risk its disintegration, going back to a free-for-all for each state as it was before 2007, and the inevitable expensive litigation which would follow.

That outcome would put South Australia in a particularly weakened position. The state is a prisoner of geography, located at the end of the Murray-Darling and to some extent at the mercy of sustainable water management further up the river. Little matters more for the future prosperity of SA than assurances it will get its fair share of water from the system.

Advocating aggressive and alarmist reform of the plan – as other politicians have done – risks other states pulling out, which would cause the plan to be abandoned. As a representative of South Australia, that is unacceptable. Equally, playing the blame-game to score cheap political points does not appeal to me.

Instead, my pragmatic view is it would be more responsible to improve the integrity of the plan carefully and methodically, without putting the plan at risk.

And there are, of course, immediate causes of concern. The recent fish kill in Menindee Lakes where, by some estimates, one million fish have died, brings to the fore an area in need of urgent attention. The causes of that kill are many, the main one being that river flows have been too low to flush water through the system. As we know, this ultimately led to large algal blooms, which were then killed by cold temperature. Bacteria subsequently fed on the dead algae and “sucked the oxygen out of the water”, suffocating the fish.

In short, more flows would have dispersed the algae build-up and prevented the fish deaths. Those flows should have been made available at the first sign of trouble late last year and it is curious that the New South Wales State Government did not respond quickly or adequately enough.  It is simplistic to blame the lack of sufficient flows for the environment entirely on the drought.

It seems more likely that too much water was taken from the system upstream for irrigation at the expense of environmental flows downstream. Water that was drained from Menindee Lakes to save evaporation also exacerbated the problem. We should remember, however, the critically important point that “no Menindee environmental releases were badged in the delivery to South Australia”. That nullifies false accusations that SA has been taking too much water.

A balance between environmental water and water for irrigation is important, and it seems that balance has not been properly struck in the case of the Menindee Lakes. It is worth noting here the finding of a Murray Darling Basin Authority Independent Review Panel – that between 49 and 75 per cent of water taken by irrigators in the northern part of the system is not metered. We simply have no way of knowing where a huge chunk of the water is going, which is not good enough.

Another issue of immediate concern is the issue of return flows, which could account for up to 140 billion litres per year less water than we are told is actually going to the environment. As shown in answers to my many questions in Senate Estimates since June last year, there is no measurement or comprehensive accounting for return flows. Return flow refers to the water that irrigators do not consume that ordinarily flows back to the system through surface run-off and groundwater seepage.

In the Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics, Professor Quentin Grafton summarised key risks to achieving the objectives of the plan as a “failure to comprehensively measure flows, inadequate flow modelling [and] low levels of water metering in the northern basin.”

I am inclined to agree with him on those points. I also agree with Professor Grafton that there are clear actions that would improve the plan. But it is critical that these improvements should be achieved without risking the plan falling apart, and I’m not quite convinced that some in the scientific community have adequately gamed-out the consequences of parts of their advocacy.

First, we must ensure that decision-making is transparent and accountable.

As I’ve already noted, a significant step to improve confidence in accounting for measuring water in and taken out of the system would be to immediately enforce the structural separation of the Murray Darling Basin Authority, as recommended by the Productivity Commission, establishing a Murray-Darling Corporation and a Basin Plan Regulator. As noted by the PC, the MDBA’s twin roles as overseer of the plan and its regulator are “conflicted and the conflicts will intensify in the next five years.”

Second, accurate water accounting and independent water audits using primary data collection must be implemented. I have been raising the concern of inaccurate water accounting for some time. As a start, there will not be confidence in the plan without accurate water accounting and auditing that we can trust.

When the Commonwealth buys water back from private water licence-holders – which should happen more often in order to ensure adequate water is banked for the environment – it must not pay unfair prices. I look forward to reading the report of the South Australian Royal Commission – to be released today – which examines these issues.

But as I said at the time of the publication of the PC report, it is not just a matter of “water theft” from irrigation systems, but also the issue of the measurement of “return flows”. The PC acknowledges that “improved water use efficiency can…reduce the amount of water returning to the system, but also that “there is no evidence DAWR undertakes systematic assessment of return flows”. In the absence of reliable primary data on return flows, this means “the realised savings from an infrastructure project … may be less than expected.”

We must have accurate knowledge of the scale of return flows in order to deliver on the Water Act 2007. The fact is we just don’t know, but given what is at stake, we should at least find out. The integrity of the plan depends on it.

Third, the plan should be amended to include effects of climate change on the Murray-Darling Basin. Climate change is the single biggest threat to the sustainability of the Murray Darling Basin. It should go without saying, then, that this overwhelming threat should be incorporated in any plan to ensure the sustainability of the system. Yet, adequate consideration of climate change is conspicuously absent. Re-evaluation of water recovery targets for the environment and sufficient oversight and enforcement are all the more important in the face of our changing climate.

We must act now before it is too late. But we must act carefully and responsibly, putting the sustainability of the system above short-term political gain. I, for one, believe that is the priority.

Tim Storer is an independent Senator for South Australia.

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