How water rights can be eroded: lessons of the Barmah-Millewa Forestby Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
, May 31, 2003
The Barmah-Millewa Forest is an important ecological wetland and forest on the Murray River between Cobram and Echuca.
Over a decade ago a meeting between the Murray Darling Basin Commission (MDBC) and local communities bought together farm irrigators, environmental groups, local councils, tourist groups, the aboriginal community and local councils to discuss ways to flood the area periodically to improve the forest, wetland and river health.
After an intense, difficult three-year process between these diverse interest groups, a watering regime was agreed. It would maximise the environmental benefits while minimising the costs of the watering regime.
The agreement struck was to periodically add 50 gigalitres of water to the flood flows through the region when the Ovens river system floods came through this reach of the Murray. It would require the building of several regulators so that different areas of the forest were flooded in different years. River gums need periodic, but not annual, floods for regeneration.
The consultation process worked well beyond expectation, until the recommendations were put to the Federal and State governments involved.
Immediately, the governments rejected the proposal to build the necessary flood regulators that would direct the 50 gigalitre flood flows, on cost grounds. Instead they decided to double the amount of periodic flood to 100 gigalitres, so as to flood the whole forest area. Later this was increased to 150 gigalitre flows, three times the community and MDBC recommended flows.
One subsequent flood was late in the year when waters were warmer, and was maintained for too long a period so that it fouled the water, causing large fish kills in the area and downstream. Crayfish were climbing trees to escape the putrid water.
Needless to say, this environmental disaster did not appear in official reports.
The story illustrates the dangers inherent in the Murray Darling Basin Ministerial Council's Living Murray
plan to take up to 15% of farmers' water allocations over 10 years and up to a further 15% over the following decade.
First, the process is wrong. The Ministerial Council - representing the Federal, NSW, Queensland, Victorian and South Australian governments - cannot impose a 'one policy fixes all' strategy to these river systems.
Local communities, in consultation with the MDBC, need to decide on the range of different policies needed to address differing environmental issues in each of the seven reaches of the river systems under consideration.
Second, if farmers concede an inch, then governments are likely to take a mile. There is a real danger that if farmers and/or their farm peak organisations compromise and concede even 1% of farmers' water allocations to environmental flows, then the Murray Darling Basin Ministerial Council will end up taking 30%, and farming in the Basin will be devastated.