Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham

Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment

Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham

Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment

Topics: Water tender

Transcript: Doorstop, Adelaide
20 January 2014

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, thanks for coming along today. I'm pleased to welcome the decision by the independent Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder to commence the first ever trade of environmental water in the Murray-Darling Basin. It is an important evolution in the management of environmental water. It really is a sign of a maturing in how we manage the environmental water, alongside the productive demand for Murray-Darling. The Coalition Government is absolutely committed to seeing the Murray-Darling Basin plan implemented in full and on time. We've also committed to ensuring that our environmental water holdings are managed in a way that maximises their environmental outcome, as the Water Act requires and as the Environmental Water Holder is required to do. Today, he has announced the sale of up to ten gigalitres of water in the Gwydir Valley in northern New South Wales. This trade will ensure that the Gwydir region doesn't face another year of potential over-watering but moves, as nature would have it, into a drying cycle. It will provide some funds that the Environmental Water Holder can reinvest in the purchase of water, either in the Gwydir another year or potentially elsewhere within the system. It really is about the dynamic management of a water portfolio to get the best possible environmental outcomes from that portfolio. I want to respond as well, though, to some of the criticism of the decision today. We've seen from both Labor and the Greens reckless, silly and irresponsible statements that try to make this into some type of state versus state issue, or parochial state election issue. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Gwydir system, where this water is being sold, is essentially disconnected from the rest of the Murray-Darling at present. The water being sold would most likely never have made it to the Darling, let alone to the Murray or to South Australia. So to suggest that selling this water in some way hurts South Australia is just ridiculous in the extreme. What the sale of this water will do is put some money in the account of the independent Environmental Water Holder for them to be make a purchase of water that may well result in the purchase of water that does make it to the South Australia, but will definitely result in a purchase of water that optimises and improves the environmental outcome than would have happened had we just sat on this bundle of water and managed it in a stagnant way. It's really important that environmental water is managed in a dynamic way, where you can trade it from year to year to get the best possible outcome and that is the approach that the Abbott Government is committed to supporting.

TOM RICHARDSON: But is it against the spirit of the agreement that water that was quarantined for environmental purposes is now being sold to irrigators and cotton growers?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Absolutely not. The Water Act has always allowed for the trading of water and what's critical to understand is that water can only be sold or traded under these circumstances if it improves the environmental benefit. So in this instance, we've got a region within the Murray-Darling basin, the Gwydir region, that's had several consecutive wet years and the independent experts have determined it is due for a drying cycle. So they'll sell water there to buy water elsewhere to get the environmental benefit in both locations. It's smart management of the water. We will still see ultimately the same, potentially even more, water used for the environment. To suggest otherwise is just being misleading.

TOM RICHARDSON: The state government's ambition to - disapproving of the measure itself, say that there's been no consultation with them whatsoever. What do you say to that?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The Water Act makes clear that Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder is completely independent, not just of state governments, but of the Federal Government in terms of political decision makers. They can't be directed by me, they can't be directed by any other minister. They make their assessment on how best to meet the needs of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and how best to optimise environmental outcomes from the environmental water being used. This is great news for the environment. It's good news because it means that we will get a better result in the Gwydir and probably a better result somewhere else in the Murray-Darling. It's not a reduction in water that's being used, it's just a change in where that water will be used. The state government's showing itself to be completely irresponsible by turning this into some type of partisan issue, state versus state issue, or state election issue. The truth of this matter is that we are acting to get the right and best outcome for the environment and for the river system. It won't see any less water used in the river, it's likely that we'll ultimately see more water flow for environmental purposes over the longer term.

TOM RICHARDSON: What's the value of the water to be sold?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: This is a market tender and the value will be determined by the tender.

TOM RICHARDSON: It's been reported that it will be worth about three million in today's money?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I'll leave that to the market to determine the value of it. Ten gigalitres out of some nineteen hundred gigalitres of total environmental holdings that we have, so it's a small portion and the commitment is that only a small portion of those holdings will be traded in any one year. But most importantly, it will only be traded where it can result in a better environmental outcome overall for the Murray Darling.

TOM RICHARDSON: Can you just explain how it equates to a better environmental outcome?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: You get your better environmental outcome because not every different wetland or floodplain in the valley needs watering every year. So what you can do is sell some that's had a lot of water over the last few years in some part of the system, so that you can buy some to use elsewhere in the system where it's most needed. This really is about transferring the water from year to year, dynamically managing the portfolio so that you actually get the best overall result. Not every floodplain would have been watered naturally if the system were unregulated, not every wetland would have been watered naturally every year if the system were regulated- were unregulated. By undertaking steps like this we can manage to shift the water from year to year to ensure that every part of the system is kept as healthy as possible within the water available to us.

TOM RICHARDSON: So it's been a particularly dry period in the Gwydir region, is that the idea?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The Gwydir has actually had several years of relative wet through it and so it is due, as nature would have it, for a drying period. It's a very variable part of the country. You would expect it to be drier right now, so by cashing in the water up there, they'll be able to buy water somewhere else, which will provide obviously environmental benefits to those other locations, which may well flow through to SA.

Simon Birmingham