WATER: by Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
Two inquiries lambast Murray-Darling Basin plan
, July 9, 2011
Following mass protests by farmers over the draft Murray-Darling Basin water-allocation plan, major criticisms of the plan have been made by two federal water inquiries.
The draft Basin plan was issued last year. Farmers across the Basin protested over its proposal to take around one-third of the current irrigation allocations for environmental flows for the Basin’s rivers.
The Australian Constitution grants responsibility for water to the states. Hence, in order to gain some measure of power over water in the Basin, the Howard Coalition Government invoked the foreign affairs powers of the Commonwealth Government by writing a series of international environmental treaties into the Water Act 2007.
Despite the Howard Government’s assurances that the environmental treaties in the new Water Act would not upset the delicate balance between social, economic and environmental interests in any new Basin plan, the act has been strongly criticised for giving overwhelming priority to the environment.
Clearly with the wisdom of hindsight, the Coalition-dominated Senate inquiry recently came to a similar conclusion.
It called upon the Gillard Labor Government to make public all the legal advice provided to it on the act, particularly on the balance of social, economic and environmental issues; on the level of discretion given to federal and state water ministers in assessing this balance; and on the constitutionality of the Water Act 2007.
The report called for an “independent panel of legal experts to review all relevant legal advice … as a matter of urgency”.
Then the inquiry recommended that the Australian Government, subject to the recommendations of this legal panel, should “amend the Water Act 2007 as a matter or urgency”.
The report cited criticisms of the Water Act by the present writer, Ken Trewin and Neil Eagle. In our joint submission we argued that all references to international agreements should be removed from the Water Act as “they fail to describe the nature of the Murray-Darling Basin’s climate and ecology”.
The report said that our submission considered that “[a]ny references to biodiversity in the Basin must be qualified in the Act by recognising that native species experience major fluctuations across the Basin because of the extremes of natural climate variation”, and cited our following recommendation:
“The Act needs to be amended so as to recognise that water availability in the Basin is highly variable, that the Basin’s climate is not ‘static’ but subject to long dry and long wet periods caused by natural, cyclical, inter-decadal climate variations, which naturally cause major fluctuations in species numbers and biodiversity.”
Currently, the Water Act speaks of average flows down rivers and average allocations of water for environmental flows as if the Murray-Darling Basin was a permanent river system with high reliability of annual flows, as is often found in Europe and the United States.
In reality, the Basin is drained by arid-to-desert river systems with huge variations in annual flows, because of major, natural climatic variation in the Basin. Hence, the Act’s attempt to require average sustainable flows simply doesn’t reflect the reality of the climate in the Basin.
Another House of Representatives inquiry, headed by NSW rural independent Tony Windsor, has also strongly criticised the Basin plan.
While it did not deal with the fundamental problems of the Water Act, this inquiry’s report dealt with the huge failure to produce a Basin plan that involved the major stakeholders across the Basin.
Farmers, businesses, industries and regional councils have been scathing over the failure of the Commonwealth Government and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) to cooperate with them in the formation of a plan.
Addressing these criticisms, the Windsor inquiry called for all governments, water authorities and other stakeholders in the Basin to develop “a cooperative model for developing water resource plans”.
In particular, it recommended that in developing any new plan, the MDBA “must engage all Basin stakeholders … to draw on local knowledge and expertise” in order “to develop a community engagement strategy, tailored for each catchment community, focussed on transparency of process with clear and meaningful opportunities for local communities to contribute”.
Any resolution of water issues in the Basin will first require that the Water Act 2007 be amended and references to international environmental treaties be removed, as these were intended to override stakeholders’ rights.
An amended Water Act needs to takes into account the highly variable climatic nature of the Basin, and then, subject to those major, natural variations, allocate water in a manner that balances social, economic and environmental issues.
Such amendments may be some time off.
Australia’s recent big wet has ended the long drought and pushed concerns for the Basin’s environmental issues well down the political agenda.
In the meantime, a new Basin plan, based on the existing Water Act, is due out soon and likely to be rejected again by farmers and local communities across the Basin.
Patrick J. Byrne is vice-president of the National Civic Council.