COVER STORY: by Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
Federal inquiry puts brakes on river flow plans
, April 24, 2004
Plans to commit an extra 500 gigalitres of water for environmental flows in the Murray River should be postponed, a House of Representatives Committee has recommended.
Committee chair Kay Elson said the Committee had received a "considerable amount of evidence" questioning the science underpinning the Living Murray initiative of the Murray Darling Basin Commission (MDBC).
She said concern had been expressed that the scientific evidence presented to justify increased river flows had not been "sufficiently robust".
The interim report of the inquiry into rural water supplies has suggested the plans be postponed until more data is available from independent scientists, non-flow alternatives are investigated, and a full audit of Murray Darling Basin's water resources is done.
Pat Byrne explains what has happened. In a second piece, Neil Eagle, a citrus grower with a long involvement in Murray water issues, comments on the report (page 5).A Federal inquiry has expressed "severe reservations" about the science behind proposals to increase environmental flows down the Murray Darling basin.
The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry has issued an interim report on The Living Murray
proposal to take up to 1,500 gigalitres (1,500,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools) of water from farmers for river flows over ten years.
The interim report has been issued with an urgent call to the Federal government to urge the Murray Darling Basin Ministerial Council (under the Council of Australian Governments or COAG) to postpone plans to commit an additional 500 gigalitres of water to the Murray River until:
- a comprehensive program of data collection and monitoring by independent scientists is completed;
- other alternatives to river management strategies, rather than just river flows, are considered and reported upon more thoroughly; and
- a full and comprehensive audit - focused specifically on the Murray-Darling Basin's water resources - including all new data, is conducted.
The Committee also recommended that sufficient funds be made available from the $500 million allocated to the Murray River by COAG to the achievement of these tasks, before there is any move to increase river flows.
Bill Hetherington, Chairman of Murray Irrigation Ltd., claimed there was a serious absence of hard data about the health of the Murray.
Mr Hetherington said that the findings from the five scientists Murray Irrigation has employed show "that salinity at Morgan has actually improved by 100 per cent in the past 20 years. There has been no change in turbidity, phosphorous and nitrate levels since they were collated in 1978. As well, the Murray cod are more plentiful than ever and carp numbers have diminished considerably. The water quality to our irrigators ... is a top world standard. So ... what is wrong?"
Dr Jennifer Marohasy, of the Institute of Public Affairs Environment Unit, said there is no substantial evidence to support popular urban myths about a serious decline in river health. Adding to Mr Hetherington's evidence, she said that:
- Irrigators take about 34% of total inflow into the river system on average;
- approximately 41% of inflows actually flow to the sea in an average year - quite a bit more than is represented by scientists or the media;
- Water tables had dropped significantly in substantial areas of the basin, and in the last twenty years the amount of land impacted by shallow water tables had dropped from 127,000 ha to 14,000 ha;
- A number of studies of macroinvertebrate populations had demonstrated healthy and diverse populations, which was at odds with the conclusions drawn in the Snapshot of the Murray–Darling Basin River Condition, based on computer modelling; and
- Decline of red gum populations along the Murray are not substantiated by the available evidence.
Dr Marohasy postulated that the cause of misconceptions about the health of the Murray River was the tendency of scientific reports to ignore natural extreme variations in river conditions.
"We have not really thought through the implications of 'natural' as opposed to 'healthy' in the context of an old river that runs through a semi-arid environment. In such an environment, during the inevitable frequent droughts, 'natural' logically equals dead fish and stressed red gums as surface water recedes and groundwater levels drop.
"Our scientists are currently compiling environmental indicators of river health all-the-while making their comparisons with hypothetical pristine environments where 'pristine' falsely equals 'well watered'. If, instead, we set our management goal as improving trends based on current conditions (that is, a healthy working river), then the issue of trying to estimate the natural or pristine environment becomes redundant ..."
The Committee noted that when the MDBC capped water diversions from the river system in 1994-95, an opportunity was missed to put in place research programs to capture data on improvements in river health. A decade of valuable data to guide future management of the river was not collected.
Dr Lee Benson of Ecology Management, questioned the integrity of The Living Murray
process, pointing out that in the absence of such data, the MDBC has reverted to relying on expert panels who can do no more than guess as what makes for better river health.
This is no substitute for basic data. Twenty-two issues affect river health, and river flows is just one issue. He said that stakeholders along the Murray must be involved more in the practical issues of river health.
The Committee concluded: "The level of disagreement between scientists is itself cause for concern. Of greater concern is the weight of evidence against the scientific reports.
"The Committee asks 'would scientists promoting new treatments or pharmaceuticals to address the health problems of human beings be so cavalier in terms of paucity of data and testing as appears to be the case with the decision making process associated with the health of the Murray-Darling Basin?'
"This issue has to be addressed before the Living Murray process moves forward."
See also COVER STORY 2: Report vindicates farmers over Murray-Darling Basin