Water Matters - Issue 24
Video explaining Murray-Darling Basin Plan released
The Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities has produced a video on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
It looks at the history of water management up to the reform of November 2012 and outlines details of what the Plan is all about.
The video includes interviews with Water Minister Tony Burke, Chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, Craig Knowles, leading scientists and farmers, and explains why the Plan is needed and what is going to happen next.
'Nobody wins when rivers die,' the Minister says in the video. The video and more information on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan are available at www.environment.gov.au/water/basin-plan.
Tony Burke: Everybody needs to have healthy rivers. No one wins when our rivers die. And what's been happening for a long time now, is we've pulled so much water out of the rivers, that they're living as though it's drought, ages before the drought itself actually arrives.
Narrator: Australia's great river system, the Murray Darling is vital to the health of the driest inhabited continent on Earth. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority was established by the Australian Government to set the minimum requirement of environmental water needed to keep the system sustainable. Following extensive consultations with key groups throughout the Basin and over many years, the Authority proposed a target of environmental flows to restore the river to health.
Tony Burke: What you get for communities, out of a Basin wide plan, is for the first time enough water held back for environmental purposes to make sure that the rivers themselves and the wetlands around them remain healthy.
Narrator: The target provides for the equivalent of 2,750GL of surface water to be returned to the environment to benefit such important sites as the Lower Lakes and Coorong, Hattah Lakes and Yanga National Park, the Macquarie Marshes, Basin rivers, and other important habitats.
Craig Knowles: I think we all understand that in any system, in any walk of life a balanced approach makes a lot of sense, and that's the way it is too with rivers. We know that over many, many years we got the balance a bit out of whack, and there's been a good effort in repairing that balance and rectifying it over the last twenty or so years, but we know there's a bit more to be done.
Narrator: The Government wanted to achieve better environmental outcomes through increased environmental flows. Recently it announced $1.7b to remove key constraints and recover an additional 450GL of water for the environment by 2024 through infrastructure projects.
ABC footage of Prime Minister's annoucement in South Australia
Julia Gillard: Put simply, it means more water. And more water means better environmental outcomes.
Tony Burke: The Murray Darling Basin is the largest integrated production asset from a farming perspective in the nation, there's nothing like it. It's spans all the way - Queensland, New South Wales, the A.C.T, Victoria and then through to South Australia.
Narrator: Over the years we've changed how the rivers run. We've built dams, we've changed seasonal flows to meet irrigation needs. More water now stays in the channel and less gets through to the lower reaches and out to the sea. We've changed the natural relationship between our rivers and the floodplains.
Tony Burke: In a dry arid continent likes ours water is everything and getting water policy right in a way that's sustainable for the long term is exactly what a continent like ours needs.
Narrator: The Murray Darling Basin contains some of the country's most diverse and rich natural environments. It is home to some two million people and is a critical cultural feature of many Aboriginal communities. It provides habitat for 95 threatened species of animals and fish that are dependent on its water and is critical to Australia's economy and food production.
Tom Hatton: The best climate science that we have on offer suggests that it is quite likely that in the next 20 to 30 years the Basin could be, on average, roughly 10 to 11% drier which is quite significant in a Basin where the flows of the rivers are already somewhat compromised.
Narrator: The volume of water that flows through the Basin's Rivers is much lower and more variable than other great river systems around the world. More water flows through the Amazon River in just one day than travels through the River Murray in a year. Because of the millennium drought, vast amounts of salt could not be flushed out to sea and acidity threatened some areas.
Tony Burke: The key to be able to get better outcomes on salinity is to be able to get the extra volume down the river. Salt discharge is a critical issue here and it's often not appreciated up stream that there is a massive environmental service that the extra water for the environment provides in terms of getting the salinity out of their part of the river and ultimately sending it out to sea.
Tom Hatton: There is ongoing pressure on the river from salinity. As the rivers dry up through extended droughts and withdrawal of water that also creates an acidity problem and in the past 10 years we've seen the emergence of some very serious acidification of parts of the river.
Tony Burke - excerpt from Press Club speech Nov 22, 2012: "The game changer came in 1991. It should have been 1981 when the mouth of the Murray closed for the first time but that once again only impacted on one state.
"But it was in 1991 when the game changer arrived and a new player turned up to the negotiating table. In 1991 the new player arrived with a blue-green algae outbreak that went for one thousand kilometres and the environment turned up to the negotiating table and proved to be more ruthless and less compromising than any of the states.
"The environment turned up to the negotiating table in 1991 and said, if you're going to manage the river this way then none of you can have the water. Effectively, the rivers decided collectively that if we were going to manage the water as though it stopped at state boundaries then the water was willing to stop."
Tony Burke: Up until now we've never taken a step back and said, OK for the health of the whole Basin, where do we need to get to - what are the volumes required - what are the methods of management that are required? So up until now communities have been asked to do a little bit more and then we come back a few years later and we ask them to do a little bit more again. This is the first time we've had the experts take a step back and say, Basin wide, what's required? That gives communities a certainty that they need, but also then means we can get about knowing that we have a sustainability benchmark that can see us through for the years ahead.
Narrator: The Commonwealth's Water Act 2007 was followed by an agreement between the Australian Government and the Basin States to fix the imbalance between water taken for the environment and water taken for human use.
Tony Burke: I'll never forget, I had been in the portfolio I reckon for about a fortnight, when meetings that were being called for the purposes of sharing information looked on the TV as though they were closer to riots. And the passion and anger that was coming out of communities for a document that, you know, had come out independently was a really, really strong level of concern. Look, I think at the heart of it, there were some people who were opposed to the reform, but by and large I think the anger within those communities was because people were saying, if you're going to fix the health of the river there are other ways of doing it that don't destroy our town.
Donna Stewart - grab: The first guide was this is it, this is what we've given you and you do it, and we were talked at, didn't have the opportunity to have input when the authority came around. This is an entirely different approach and that is why it's getting the reception that it is up here.
Tony Burke - at meeting grab: Anybody who says that the objective of the reform is somehow to return the Murray Darling back to its natural state is talking a different language here. We have a working basin, we will always have a working basin, and what I want to make sure is that that working basin is as healthy as it can be.
Clem Mason - at meeting grab: Without a plan we will fail.
Boat Industry representative: Let's agree and accept it now ... no plan takes us nowhere.
Narrator: Farmers and rural communities felt productive capacity was being threatened, which would endanger livelihoods and have adverse consequences for businesses, jobs and house prices. Australia's ability to grow the food it needs to feed itself was also seen as being put at risk.
Tony Burke: I listened to the messages, and I tried to use that anger that communities were feeling to say well, how can we find a way of still achieving the benchmark of the reform that works with communities and I do believe that's where we've landed.
Tony Burke: The water doesn't respect boundaries as it goes from one state to another, so we need to run the Murray Darling Basin as a Basin wide system. And what that means is you look across the needs of the whole Basin and you say, how much water do we need to reserve for environmental purposes to be able to keep the system healthy Basin wide. And only a national plan can do that.
Narrator: The aim is to restore our rivers to health and ensure strong regional communities and sustainable food production by striking the right balance between water for the environment and water for people.
Tom Hatton: From an ecological point of view a healthy Basin is one where the floodplains get watered every few years, at least, where the natural cycling of nutrients and salt is in a good balance, where feral animals and weeds don't greatly distort the ecological balance in the river system itself. From a social point of view those values are very important, culturally, aesthetically, spiritually. So is making money. Getting that balance, in that sense a healthy river system, is also important.
Narrator: The plan balances water for the environment, and for people to drink and to use for agriculture and for other purposes. The equivalent of 2,750GL per annum of surface water will be returned to the environment by 2019. The Plan also means that within the next 12 months a constraints management strategy will be put in place.
Tony Burke: Removing the capacity constraints then allows us to use the extra 450 gig for large environmental events, which means we can reach some higher wetlands, which means we can get some better inundations into those environmental sites.
Craig Knowles: We know that there are opportunities to look at some of the constraints in the system as they're called, to assume they can be fixed, removed, altered to use less water for example, to achieve the same environmental outcomes. And so you can do that by investing in engineering solutions, which you see up and down the basin.
Tony Burke - excerpt from Press Club speech Nov 22, 2012: "The Authority has delivered a plan which has the figure 2750 as the number in the plan. That is the number for environmentally held water once they've done the calculations, under current constraints of what they believe should be the environmentally sustainable level of take.
"Now, I've always said that I thought the environmental outcomes of 2750 fell short of what this reform should be able to achieve, and there's a mechanism that allows me to improve on that, but I'll get to that in a moment. In fairness to the Authority there is a reason why 2750 is the number they have recommended, and that is that once you go beyond 2750 with the constraints that are currently in the system, the extra gigalitres of water you don't get a significant environmental improvement.
"Those constraints are things like river rules that prevent you from releasing dam water beyond certain levels, channels where if you try to put more water than the capacity of a channel allows, instead of the water going down the system it just goes out. These capacity constraints create a challenge in using higher volumes of water, and therefore the authority, having to look at the system as it currently stands, quite rightly said within those current constraints 2750 is the number that we arrive at, and that has a series of social, economic and environment consequences.
"If we work on the basis that you take, for example, there are 18 different targets of river flow within the Murray - the flow targets. Current status quo, before we had any environmental water, none of the 18 were being met. At 2750, 11 of the 18 get met. But if we are able to release those capacity constraints that I described and put the extra volume in that I'll refer to in a moment, we go to 17 out of 18 of those flow level targets being reached.
"So, the mechanism that's in the plan says this; at 2750 there are environmental, social and economic consequences. If governments can interact with the plan and improve any of those without sacrificing the other outcomes, then they're allowed to do that.
"That means there will be state governments that look at the 2750 figure and the mechanism within it and say how can we achieve the environmental outcomes without requiring so much buy-back? Both New South Wales and Victoria in particular have indicated that they want to be able to use the mechanism to be able to do that."
Narrator: Some bridge heights may need to be raised, outlets from water storages enlarged, and flood easements purchased from landowners.
Craig Knowles: What's left to be done will be done by sensibly using water, investing in infrastructure, looking at the opportunity to strive for efficiencies, making sure environmental water is used as effectively as it can be.
Tom Hatton: It is so important now that we have a chance to restore some of the flows in the river, that we drought proof that river a little bit more than we have in the last decades, that we restore some flow, particularly to get ready for those years when the droughts will come back.
Narrator: An adjustment mechanism built into the Plan will enable the sustainable diversion limit to be changed in ways that provide benefits to the environment and communities. The plan allows the states to come up with projects to achieve the desired environmental benefits but use up to 650 gigalitres less water.
Craig Knowles: My view is if a farmer's smart enough to be able to manage the resources up and down over time depending on what's happening, we should be able to as communities and governments as well, and that's what our plan reflects.
Narrator: Between now and 2016 projects that deliver equivalent environmental outcomes with less water can be identified and fully considered. In 2016 a final decision will be made about any change to the SDL that will be allowed as the result of these projects. By 2019, the 2750 gigalitre benchmark in the form of water held by the Commonwealth for the environment should have been achieved. By 2024, the additional 450GL will have been recovered and all the new environmental benefits from the additional water will have been met without any disadvantage to irrigation communities.
Tony Burke: We talk about infrastructure upgrades and all the different language we use, but effectively what we're saying is, the Government helps pay for better equipment than what people currently have.
Tom Hatton: With the Basin plan building on recent changes in entitlements, putting more water in the river, we are going to be in much better shape for the next drought.
Tony Burke: This is one of those once in a generation opportunities that you have where the moment is there that you either say, we're going to run this as a Basin wide system or we're going to play the game of throwing it into the too hard basket just like generations have before us. I'm really proud that this is the time that Australians, people living in the Basin and across the Parliament seem to be willing to grab the moment that's in front of us and say, no we'll be different to the previous generations, we will get a plan in place to run the Murray Darling Basin as an integrated Basin wide system.
The video is also on Youtube, visit www.youtube.com/user/deptenvironment.
Call for submissions: Environmental Water Recovery Strategy
The Australian Government has published a draft strategy setting out its proposed approach to recovering water for the environment in the Murray-Darling Basin. The department welcomes comments on the draft strategy to help refine the process over coming years.
The proposed approach builds on consultations with state governments, Basin communities, industry bodies, through stakeholder panels, community meetings, and public submissions.
The Strategy will involve an adaptive approach taking account of Basin Plan developments such as the operation of the sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism and realised water yields from the Government's investments in infrastructure savings.
To read the Environmental Water Recovery Strategy and make a submission visit www.environment.gov.au/water/policy-programs/water-recovery-strategy/index.html.