Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Interview with Fran Kelly, ABC Radio National
28 November 2011
FRAN KELLY: It’s six past eight on breakfast. Let’s go now though back to the draft plan to save Australia’s largest river system. It won’t be formally launched until later this morning by the Murray–Darling Basin Authority but already it’s infuriated environmentalists with the proposed scaling back of water savings and cut backs to 2750 gigalitres by 2019 which is well down on the 3000 to 4000 gigs proposed last year.
And that was of course not enough for the scientists who were currently at that time proposing cuts between 4000 to 7000 gigalitres as a minimum required to restore the basin to good health.
This morning we’ve heard from the irrigators and the Opposition’s water spokesman, Barnaby Joyce, also the water scientists. Let’s cross now to the Federal Water Minister, Tony Burke in our Parliament House studio.
Minister, good morning.
TONY BURKE: Good morning, Fran.
FRAN KELLY: Twelve months ago irrigators were burning copies of the guide to water reform in the Murray–Darling. What do you think they’ll do with this one?
TONY BURKE: There’s no consensus position here, never has been, never will be. So we will still see over the coming weeks many irrigation communities arguing that they don’t want to have any reform at all and we’ll see some environmental groups arguing for much, much higher water targets.
What has to happen in all of this is a judgment call needs to be made. If we pretend that we can find some sort of consensus we’d be waiting around forever and we’d never get to restore the system to health.
FRAN KELLY: Well the environmentalists say that the irrigators win. That’s their take out from this draft plan. Do they?
TONY BURKE: Some of the numbers that the environmentalists — some of the environmental groups are calling for, simply cannot be delivered.
FRAN KELLY: Why not?
TONY BURKE: There are constraints in the system. You’ve got sizes of channels, you’ve got the issue of how you use the environmental water. One of the things that needs to be remembered here is once you reserve water for the Commonwealth for the environment what you’re actually doing with that water is flood events for environmental assets.
Now there are volumes that are being talked about, three and a half thousand, four thousand, some say even higher, where you would not be able to legally use that water because you’d effectively be flooding private property when you get to those sorts of volumes.
So there are some constraints within the system, size of river channels, easements over private property, things like flooding of bridges. Issues like that where some of the numbers, while environmentally would be able to deliver a significant outcome, legally would not be able to be delivered.
FRAN KELLY: Part of your problem seems to be distrust all around. You appointed former New South Wales Labor minister, Craig Knowles, to head up the authority after that back lash from the irrigators and it was reported back in February that at his first board meeting that Craig Knowles told the board members they were not to put the environmental needs of the river ahead of social and economic concerns of irrigation communities. Does this draft plan reflect that instruction?
TONY BURKE: The draft plan that’s in front of us does exactly what the Water Act calls on it to do and that is it does the optimising of the environmental, social and economic outcomes. Importantly it meets the minimum environmental standards.
It meets the minimum standards we need to be able to restore the system to health. One of the things when people talk about different volumes is they presume that for every extra gigalitre there’s some sort of a linear relationship to the environmental outcome. The river doesn’t work that way. So if you take the numbers that are released today compared to one of the high figures, say a 4000 figure, and look at the environmental outcome of the mouth of the Murray.
The numbers released today would have the mouth of the Murray open 89% of the time. Four thousand gigalitres would only get that open 92% of the time.
FRAN KELLY: Is that the test of success or failure here, getting the Murray mouth open, keeping it open and revitalising the Coorong?
TONY BURKE: It’s one of the important tests. There are thousands of tests up and down the system for different wetlands, different environmental assets. For many of the environmental assets throughout the basin they actually don’t have a history of being measured. So for many of them teven the scientific information has to be based on some best judgment calls.
FRAN KELLY: The response from all sides of this debate this morning seems to be that there’s not enough questions answered.
I mean, we heard the water scientists earlier saying where’s the science to support this — this lower number, this is 2750 gigalitres as the amount needed because they haven’t seen that number represented in any of the scientific studies.
TONY BURKE: Well there’s a summary of the scientific information which is released in the materials that are up on the website now as part of the plain English guide. There’s further work that’s being done from the CSIRO which I understand is going to be released during the course of the day but…
FRAN KELLY: Which supports this number?
TONY BURKE: That’s right but also within the limits of capacity constraints. There’s no point talking about a number that legally cannot be delivered and the capacity constraints have been one of the largely untold stories here but there is no point talking about volumes of water where the size of the channels don’t allow it to effectively be delivered.
FRAN KELLY: We also heard earlier in the program from the irrigators and from the shadow water minister, Barnaby Joyce. Barnaby Joyce says — well both say there are many unanswered questions.
Here’s just a few of Barnaby Joyce’s concerns.
BARNABY JOYCE: Where is the water coming from? Not where in three hundred kilometres of river but is it coming from near Dirranbandi, near Shepparton, because those people in those towns have a right to know whether they have a future?
We need to know how is the water turning up? Is it turning up by reason of infrastructure improvements which of course leave the town behind or is it turning up by reason of buy backs, which of course destroys a town. And we need to find out why. We need to know exactly where — what environmental asset in stream, that is within the area, or downstream, they are actually watering and can they water it and how are they getting the water to it and how they calculated that amount.
FRAN KELLY: That sounds like two key questions, minister. Where is the water coming from? Is the water coming from near Shepparton or other areas and what environmental asset is it going to support and improve? All sides say those questions aren’t answered in this report. Why not?
TONY BURKE: There are two sorts of environmental outcomes. There are the environmental outcomes that are within individual catchments and there are the shared environmental outcomes for the flow of water throughout the entire system.
What the authority has done on this occasion is for the outcomes that are within a catchment they’ve assigned a number that needs to be recovered within the catchment but then they’ve got the shared outcomes as well for the connected systems, particularly across the south to have things like what I referred to before about keeping the mouth of the Murray open nine years out of ten.
Now there is an argument which we’ll work through during the consultation period as to whether or not instead of doing it specifically on the environmental grounds that the authority has, whether it would be better to provide communities with a catchment by catchment final number that couldn’t be departed from.
What we have to remember though is since the national water initiative we have had a water market and water does move between catchments whether the Government is in the market or not.
FRAN KELLY: But isn’t that catchment by catchment what people are going to want to know in order for them to be reassured? I mean, Barnaby Joyce for instance said would you buy a house in Deniliquin? Well, how would you know because it’s unclear how much water is going to be leaving that area.
TONY BURKE: And as I say from the day the water market was first established under the national water initiative many years ago now the concept of a water market has meant that water can be sold from one section of the system to another. That’s there whether this reform occurs or not. What the authority…
FRAN KELLY: Yes, but some regions under this reform will have to lose some water, won’t they? They will have to give some water back?
TONY BURKE: That’s right and the extent to which…
FRAN KELLY: It’s not all arbitrary?
TONY BURKE: …the extent to which individual regions would have to is the in catchment number and that has been published. That is within the numbers that are released today.
FRAN KELLY: And Minister we also heard about groundwater and one surprising element of this report seems to be an increase in the amount of groundwater that can be taken from the river system.
Three hundred gigalitres for coal to support coal seam gas mining in the area. Is that — was that a prerequisite of this report that it allow the coal seam gas industry to be supported by giving it access to water?
TONY BURKE: No. No, it wasn’t and…
FRAN KELLY: Well then why the increase in the groundwater being allowed to be taken?
TONY BURKE: …and that’s a decision being taken by the Authority that I think will form a focus over the next twenty weeks for many people on making sure that any of the decisions that are made about groundwater take into account whether or not that would have an impact on the surface water within the basin.
Not all groundwater has a direct issue of connectivity with surface water. A lot of it does and I think that’s going to be a very important issue over the next twenty weeks.
FRAN KELLY: Tony Burke, thanks very much for joining us.
TONY BURKE: Good to talk to you, Fran.
FRAN KELLY: Tony Burke is the Federal Water Minister and that draft plan for the Murray–Darling Basin is formally launched this morning by the authority and then begins a twenty week consultation period. It’s fourteen past eight.