MURRAY DARLING: by Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
Backdown on water confiscation plan
, November 29, 2003
Regional communities should be congratulated for persuading the Murray Darling Basin Ministerial Council to change their focus from taking water off farmers, to creating six pristine, icon sites on the Murray River. This is a first step towards a practical water policy for the Murray Darling Basin. Pat Byrne reports.Protests by farmers and regional communities over the past nine months sent a clear message to Canberra that regional areas would not accept The Living Murray proposal to take up to 1,500GL of irrigation water from farmers for highly questionable environmental flows in the Basin ... not without a very strong political backlash. This is the first time in many years that governments have responded to the voice of regional communities and farmers on such an important issue.
The decision is a rebuff to the increasingly discredited Wentworth Group, backed by the World Wildlife Fund, which strongly backed The Living Murray.
Instead, the recent Murray Darling Basin Ministerial Council meeting of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) announced 500GL of water for environmental flows, and a plan to maximise environmental benefits for six icon areas:
- "Barmah-Millewa: Achieve successful breeding of colonial waterbirds in at least three years in ten, and maintain healthy vegetation in at least 55% of the forest area;
- "Gunbower, Koondrook-Perricoota: Reinstate at least 80% of permanent and semi-permanent wetlands and maintain at least 30% of total river red gum forest area;
- "Hattah Lakes: Restore the aquatic vegetation zone around at least 50% of the lakes and increase successful breeding events of threatened colonial water birds and native fish;
- "Chowilla (including Lindsay-Wallpolla): Water high value wetlands and maintain health of the current area of river redgums, and at least 20% of the original area of black box;
- "Murray Mouth, Coorong and Lower Lakes: Keep the Murray mouth open, provide more frequent conditions for estuarine fish spawning, and enhance migratory wading bird habitat in the Lower Lakes; and
- "River Murray channel: Enhancing native fish recruitment and habitat, and maintain current levels of channel stability."
These icon sites are to be achieved through recovered water being built up over a period of five years to an estimated average 500GL per year of "new" water after five years, with the volume to be used each year depending on a range of factors such as droughts and flood events. Some water savings are to come from modifications to structural works and impoundments. Of concern is that the rest is to come from "willing sellers".
The funding is to be available under the $500 million to address water over-allocation in the Basin announced by COAG and a realignment of the previously announced capital works program of an additional $150 million over seven years to effectively manage the water to the six icon areas.
According to Neil Eagle, a citrus grower with a long involvement with in Murray water issues, "The Ministerial Council communiqué is a start. It has stopped ill-considered, hasty decisions being made on water issues in the Basin. It buys time to make appropriate decisions to address different problems facing different sections of the river system, using good science.
"At last our political authorities are making the right noises about employing serious science, making proper ecological evaluations on the needs of particular areas.
"The challenge will be to ensures that good science, water engineering and water management is applied. Water must not be taken from productive use and there must be full community consultation on proposed changes."Poor science
One example of poor science and management has been the Barmah-Millewa Forest. Two years of negotiations between farmers, communities, environmental groups and the Murray Darling Basin Commission led to a recommendation of 50GL of low security water to top up Ovens River flood flows, with right engineering works to regulate periodic floods of different sections of the forest, rather than flooding the whole area at once.
Governments resolved not to spend money on engineering works. Instead they decided to double the environmental flow allocation to 100GL, and then to increase the flow to 150GL in good seasons when water was available, using high security water. This is six times the water that would be needed if appropriate engineering works were put in place. The Ministerial Council communiqué will add another 80GL to the forest.
Further, when one large environmental flow was put through the forest it stagnated the water, causing a large fish kill and driving crayfish up gum trees.
The Ministerial Council communiqué also illustrates the need to set clear scientific objectives. Until recently, the Wentworth Group and others had wrongly claimed that the Barmah-Millwea Forest was suffering from gum tree dieback.
The communiqué shifted the scientific goal posts. It shifted the focus to successful breeding of colonial water birds. Throughout The Living Murray
debate, the scientific goals of environmental groups have had as many meanderings as the Murray River.
The communiqué also talks of buying water from "willing sellers" for environmental flows. This is a political "easy option" that will need to be resisted. If farmers sell their water out of a region, this affects the economy of the region and can raise the cost of water delivery to remaining farmers.
Clearly, farmers and regional communities will have to be vigilant about the implementation of this communiqué.
This is just the one of several water issues confronting Australian farmers and regions that could prove as damaging as the original Living Murray
proposals. These proposals include: a national water trading system to be decided within a year; the question of water rights and ownership, which is under political scrutiny; and new water legislation in various states.