February 24th 2018


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COVER STORY Weatherill demand places Murray-Darling in jeopardy

EDITORIAL China completes island building in South China Sea

CANBERRA OBSERVED Greens: wouldn't know a cowardly act if they did one

REDEFINITION OF MARRIAGE Government forms say it is fluid gender marriage

FREEDOM AND LAW Gender and anti-discrimination: wedges between you and freedom

HISTORY A look back at B.A. Santamaria gives us a forward impulse

GENDER POLITICS Transgenderism: A state-sponsored religion

LAW AND SOCIETY Protecting freedom of religion in Australia

HISTORY Hungary, 62 years on from the anti-Soviet uprising

MUSIC Reel to real: Johann Johannsson, RIP

CINEMA Sweet Country: Sour taste of bush justice

HUMOUR

BOOK REVIEW Lessons from the UK front of the GFC

BOOK REVIEW The dragon has woken and rumbled

BOOK REVIEW Recovery manual for morals and culture

LETTERS

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COVER STORY Weatherill demand places Murray-Darling in jeopardy

by Chris McCormack

News Weekly, February 24, 2018

The decision by Prime Minister Julia Gillard in 2012 to take an additional 450 gigalitres “up water” from the Murray Darling catchment and send it down the rivers “for the environment” has been a costly exercise in political posturing that can deliver no benefits.

That is the view of an increasing number of individuals and associations involved in agriculture and the water industry in the Murray-Darling Basin. In 2012, the Weatherill Labor Government in South Australia threatened a High Court challenge unless the federal government requisitioned an extra 450 GL (only slightly less than the 500 GL volume of Sydney Harbour) of water for South Australia. Despite the lack of any science to back up the need for the additional 450 GL, the federal government capitulated.

The 450 GL demanded came on top of the 2750 GL of water to be returned to the river system as part of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan (MDBP) that was established in 2012. This week, the Senate rejected a proposal to return 70GL of the 2750GL back to irrigators, with the Victorian and N.S.W. governments now threatening to break away from the MDBP. The 2750 GL of water was to be “recovered” via water buybacks from landowners and savings from efficiency measures such as modernising irrigation methods. These measures currently “recover” less than 2100 GL (four Sydney Harbours).

Vicki Meyer helps save a neighbour's sheep
from drowning during the 2016 floods
near Deniliquin, NSW. The high point
on the property where the photograph
was taken had not been flooded in 60 years.

Over 600 GL of water is to be diverted via “environmental works” including levees, channelling and piping to “icon sites”, mimicking natural flooding events,[1] making up the 2750 GL to go towards the “environment”. The 450 GL is an additional requirement to these measures.

The spring of 2016 saw record rainfalls and the Murrumbidgee, Murray and Goulburn river flows exceeded 60,000 megalitres a day for over five weeks, peaking at 94,246 ML a day at the South Australian border, the highest since 1993. Yet this was still not enough to breach the silted-over mouth of the Murray River despite exceeding the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s Con­straints Management Strategy, which states that: “Regulated flows of up to 80,000 megalitres a day in the River Murray at the SA border have significant environmental, cultural and social benefits” and are necessary to “improve water quality and remove salt out the system” [2].

While not flushing out the lower lakes and Coorong in South Australia, what did result from the recommended flows was widespread damage from flooding to farmland and structures in the Murray-Darling Basin. The strategy report did, however, admit: “Issues with such flows could include inundation of private property (e.g. shacks), council property and infrastructure (e.g. boat ramps, unsealed roads along the floodplain).” [3]

Recently retired Commonwealth Environment Water Holder David Papps told Upper Goulburn landholders in 2016 that the 80,000 ML/day flows at the South Australian border could only be achieved with three of the four main river systems flooding extensively at the same time, which would see major flooding in three states. Consequently, the proposed strategy would result in regular inundation of farmland.

Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) chief executive Phillip Glyde has also said that a large flood is necessary to deliver the high flows to the SA border and that “the constraints strategies are critical to the 450 GL”.

To deliver the 450 GL, the MDBA proposed a relaxed constraints strategy. According to the MDBA: “Constraints is the term given to features such as crossings, bridges or low-lying private land, or river practices and rules, which can restrict when and how much water can be delivered from water storages.” [4]

A relaxed constraints strategy would mean low-lying roads and bridges would be replaced by higher roads and bridges and easements taken on landholders’ properties. Landowners would be paid a one-off upfront amount for allowing their properties to be inundated forever after. Farmers in the steeper country of the upper catchment of the Murray-Goulburn experience rapid flooding.

Jan Beer from the Upper Goulburn River Catchment Association said that the previous plan to release water from Eildon on top of high tributary flows or piggybacking the water was fraught with danger: “They threw out the first constraints strategy because we told them it couldn’t work.”

A revised Goulburn constraints strategy is now pending approval by the Federal Government, although farmers have not been consulted thus far.

Ms Beer said that landowners in the upper Goulburn catchment a few years ago put out a document that stated that they would not negotiate or allow easements to be taken on their property for floodwaters to spill into. The first relaxed constraints strategy involved flooding of 562 properties in the Goulburn catchment at a cost to the taxpayer of $140 million. [5]

A legislative requirement of the Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012 to deliver the 450 GL is that it cannot cause any adverse social and economic effects. [6]

Apart from the threat of flooding from relaxed constraints, Ms Beer said the problem with “savings” from on-farm efficiency measures such as pipes replacing channelling was that some “rather creative accounting” was used by water authorities in calculating water savings, half of which was then deducted from the water entitlement of the farmer. This meant that farmers were effectively losing some of their entitlement and forced to pay exorbitant prices if they needed to purchase temporary water to make up the shortfall.

Between 2012 and 2015, the price of temporary water increased by over 900 per cent. With the 450 GL to be found through another round of efficiency measures, 100 per cent of the calculated water savings will be subtracted from the farmers’ entitlement and be diverted to the “environment”. Ms Beer said taking another 450 GL out of irrigation districts will cause them to “simply collapse” and farmers were telling her they couldn’t afford to lose any more water.

The problems with delivering the additional 450 GL of water to South Australia are manifold. The Federal Government, the Victorian Government and the Commonwealth Environment Water Holder have all stated that they will not relax constraints that intentionally flood private land without the consent of the landholder.

So, physically delivering the 450 GL to South Australia while adhering to the legislative requirement of “no adverse social or economic effects” is an impossibility.

Furthermore, even when flows exceeded the recommended 80,000 ML/day, the mouth of the Murray was not cleared, nor the lower SA lakes flushed of salt. Reduced levels of salinity in the Coorong and Lower Lakes, increasing water levels in the Lower Lakes, acidification prevention and keeping the Murray Mouth open 95 per cent of the time without the need for dredging had been touted as benefits of the additional 450 GL. [7]

Even the 2012 report, “Hydrologic modelling of the relaxation of operational constraints in the southern connected system”, admitted: “Modelling indicated that relaxing constraints would provide relatively subtle changes to outcomes for the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth … with some indicators slightly improving, and some indicators slightly worsening.” [8]

With landholders reluctant to sign up for another round of on-farm efficiency measures that can end up reducing their water entitlement and many not consenting to have their land intentionally inundated by floodwaters, the promise to deliver the 450 GL to South Australia seems to be one that cannot be kept without breaking the legislative requirements and placing in jeopardy the livelihoods of farmers in the Murray-Darling Basin and Australia’s food security.

 

References:

[1] Murray Darling Basin Ministerial Council, Package of Supply, Constraints and Efficiency Measures agreed by the Murray Darling Basin Ministerial Council, April 22, 2016.

[2] Constraints Management Strategy 2013 to 2024, Murray-Darling Basin Authority, 2013, p63.

[3] ibid

[4 Managing Constraints, Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

[5] Goulburn Broken Catchment Management Authority, Goulburn River Constraints Proposal Open House Meetings

[6] The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia-House of Representatives, Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012, p2-point 3.

[7] Federal Register of Legislation, Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2013.

[8] Murray-Darling Basin Authority, Hydrologic Modelling of the Relaxation of Operational Constraints in the Southern Connected System – Methods and Results, 2012, pp xi-xii.

 

 

 




























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