WATER POLICY: by Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
Commonwealth Water Act must be rewritten
, November 13, 2010
Delaying the Murray-Darling Basin plan a year will achieve nothing unless the Commonwealth Water Act 2007 is rewritten and unless intensive consultations are held with all Basin stakeholders.
|Murray River at|
Swan Hill, 2003.
Widespread protests have resulted in federal Water Minister Tony Burke postponing for 12 months the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA)'s draft water plan. It proposed taking around 30 per cent of irrigation water for additional environmental flows down the Basin's rivers.
The MDBA draft water plan is considered fatally flawed because the Water Act 2007
is itself flawed.
The act was drafted towards what now appears to have been the end of a long drought - one of three worst droughts since 1890. This has distorted the data on which the act is based.
The drought may have induced panic among politicians and environmentalists, but not one of Australia's leading hydro-climatologists, Dr Anthony Kiem of Newcastle University. He has demonstrated that the Murray-Darling Basin naturally alternates between 12-30 year dry periods (when the environment naturally degrades) and wet periods (when the Basin regenerates quickly, as is now happening).
Extreme climate variability defines the ecology of this huge arid-to-desert river system. The recent 30-year dry period began in the late 1970s, culminating in 13 years of drought.
For many environmental scientists working in the Basin, they have seen only a steady loss of wildlife over their entire careers. They have never seen an extended wet period with a high level of biodiversity.
The Water Act 2007
attributes the cause of the Basin's 30-year drying out and associated environmental impacts not to climate variations, but to scarce water resources supposedly being "over-allocated" to, or "overused" by, agriculture (Section 3d.i).
Indeed, the act emphasises that the new "Basin Plan must
be prepared" to take into account the "significant adverse impacts on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity..." from overuse of water resources (Section 21, emphasis added).
This is to be achieved by invoking "relevant international agreements" (Section 3b) that can be applied to the management of the Basin's water resources. The act specifies a series of agreements, which relate mainly to the management of particular wetlands across the Basin.
uses the same external affairs powers used by an earlier Commonwealth government to halt the construction of the Franklin Dam in Tasmania. Otherwise, water is a state issue.
Consequently, the act gives overwhelming priority to environmental needs. Only after environmental allocations have been determined are social and economic issues considered.
This over-preoccupation with environmental concerns led to a serious problem - Adelaide and Canberra could have been starved of water in a time of very low river flows. Hence, the 2007 act was changed by the Water Amendment Bill of 2008
to give first priority in times of low river flows to the "critical human needs" of cities, towns and domestic farm needs.
Nowhere in the water act was any consideration given to the possibility that human intervention may have preserved, or even extended, biodiversity in the Basin.
The photo on this page of the Murray River at Swan Hill was taken in the middle of the 2003 drought. The river was full only because the massive Hume and Dartmouth dams (equivalent of 14 Sydney harbours) could supply water to the Murray all the way to Lakes Alexandrina and Albert in South Australia.
Without this human intervention to store water from wet times for use in droughts, the Murray River in its "natural state" would have degraded to a dry river bed interspersed by water holes. Wildlife would have suffered huge die-offs, with aquatic and land animal life being restricted to isolated water-holes and their surrounds.
Under which conditions did the Murray River support more wildlife and flora - in it's "natural pristine state", largely empty of water in a drought? Or with dams, locks and weirs keeping the Murray full of water in the middle of a severe drought all the way to the lower lakes in South Australia?
The Basin also has thousands of kilometres of irrigation channels, thousands of farm dams and irrigated farmland providing water and habitat to a wide range of birds, land animals, aquatic life and fauna that were once restricted to rivers, creeks and wetlands ... when these had water.
Why did the Water Act 2007
give no recognition to the much larger expanse of land and water-ways capable of sustaining biodiversity thanks to human intervention? Why did the act restrict considerations of biodiversity only to wetlands and other areas defined in international environmental agreements?
The act must be rewritten to take into proper account the benefits of human interventions and the extreme climate variation of the Basin, to grant at least equal weighting to economic and social issues and to have the science of the Basin reviewed by stakeholders as part of any new Basin plan.Patrick J. Byrne is vice-president of the National Civic Council.