A recent expose by the ABC’s Four Corners has alleged significant illegal extraction of water from the Barwon-Darling river system, one of the major tributaries of the Murray River. The revelations have triggered widespread condemnation of irrigators, the New South Wales government and its officials, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Basin Plan itself.
If the allegations are true that billions of litres of water worth millions of dollars were illegally extracted, this would represent one of the largest thefts in Australian history. It would have social and economic consequences for communities along the entire length of the Murray-Darling river system, and for the river itself, after years of trying to restore its health.
Water is big business, big politics and a big player in our environment. Taxpayers have spent A$13 billion on water reform in the Murray-Darling Basin in the past decade, hundreds of millions of which have gone directly to state governments. Governments have an obligation to ensure that this money is well spent.
The revelations cast doubt on the states’ willingness to do this, and even on their commitment to the entire Murray-Darling Basin Plan. This commitment needs to be reaffirmed urgently.
To work out where to go from here, it helps to understand the principles on which the Basin Plan was conceived. At its foundation, Australian water reform is based on four pillars.
1. Environmental water and fair consumption
The initial driver of water reform in the late 1990s was a widespread recognition that too much water had been allocated from the Murray-Darling system, and that it had suffered ecological damage as a result.
State and Commonwealth governments made a bipartisan commitment to reset the balance between water consumption and environmental water, to help restore the basin’s health and also to ensure that water-dependent industries and communities can be strong and sustainable.
Key to this was the idea that water users along the river would have fair access to water. Upstream users could not take water to the detriment of people downstream. The Four Corners investigation casts doubt on the NSW’s commitment to this principle.
2. Water markets and buybacks
The creation of a water market under the Basin Plan had two purposes: to allow water to be purchased on behalf of the environment, and to allow water permits to be traded between irrigators depending on relative need.
This involved calculating how much water could be taken from the river while ensuring a healthy ecosystem (the Sustainable Diversion Limit). Based on these calculations, state governments developed a water recovery program, which aimed to recover 2,750 gigalitres of water per year from consumptive use, through a A$3 billion water entitlement buyback and a A$9 billion irrigation modernisation program.
This program hinged on the development of water accounting tools that could measure both water availability and consumption. Only through trust in this process can downstream users be confident that they are receiving their fair share.
3. States retain control of water
Control of water was a major stumbling block in negotiating the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, because of a clash between states’ water-management responsibilities and the Commonwealth’s obligations to the environment.
As a result, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority sits outside of both state and Commonwealth governments, and states have to draw up water management plans that are subject to approval by the authority.
The states are responsible for enforcing these plans and ensuring that allocations are not exceeded. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority cannot easily enforce action on the ground – a situation that generates potential for state-level political interference, as alleged by the Four Corners investigation.
4. Trust and transparency
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan was built on a foundation of trust and transparency. The buyback scheme has transformed water into a tradeable commodity worth A$2 billion a year, a sizeable chunk of which is held by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office.
Water trading has also helped to make water use more flexible. In a dry year, farmers with annual crops (such as cotton) can choose not to plant and instead to sell their water to farmers such as horticulturists who must irrigate to keep their trees alive. This flexibility is valuable in Australia’s highly variable climate.
Yet it is also true that water trading has created some big winners. Those with pre-existing water rights have been able to capitalise on that asset and invest heavily in buying further water rights, an outcome highlighted in the Four Corners story.
More than A$20 million in research investment has been devoted to ensuring that the ecological benefits of water are optimised – most notably through the Environmental Water Knowledge and Research and Long Term Intervention Monitoring programs. What is not clear is whether water extractions and their policing have been subjected to a similar degree of review and rigour.
What next for the Murray-Darling Basin?
The public needs to be able to trust that all parties are working honestly and accountably. This is particularly true for the downstream partners, who are the most likely victims of management failures upstream. Without trust in the upstream states, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan will unravel.
State governments urgently need to reaffirm their commitment to the four pillars that underpin the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and to reassure the public that in retaining control of water they are operating in good faith.
Finally, rigour and transparency are needed in assessing the Basin Plan’s methods and environmental benefits, and the operation of the water market. The Productivity Commission’s review of national water policy, and its specific review of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan next year, will offer a clear opportunity to reassure everyone that the A$13 billion of public money that has gone into water reform in the past decade has been money well spent.
Only then will the fragile trust that underlies the water reform process be maintained and built.
With fewer than 160 birds alive, kākāpō are critically endangered. One reason for their dwindling numbers is that they only breed every few years, when native trees produce masses of edible fruit or seeds.
Our research suggests that the birds’ breeding success depends on oestrogen-like hormones (phytoestrogens) found in these native plants.
Hormone boost from plants
Our study included kākāpō (Strigops habroptilus) and two other New Zealand native parrots, the endangered kākā (Nestor meridionalis) and kea (Nestor notabilis). All three have infrequent breeding success.
Kākāpō in particular have a low reproductive rate and together with the kākā, only breed successfully every three or four years, during mast years, when mass fruiting of native trees occurs.
2016 was a mast year and a record breeding season for kākāpō – the best since New Zealand’s Department of Conservation began managing and monitoring the night parrots 25 years ago.
This link between the parrots’ successful breeding and high levels of fruiting in native plants has focused our investigations on potential stimulants present in their food plants that might activate or improve reproduction.
One hypothesis is that steroid-like compounds in the fruits of certain native plants provide a trigger for breeding. It proposes that kākāpō don’t produce enough of the hormone oestrogen to make a fertile egg, but by eating these fruits and the phytoestrogens they contain, the birds supplement their own hormone levels.
This increases the production of egg yolk protein, which in turn leads to eggs that have a better chance of being fertilised successfully.
We know from other studies that kākāpō seek out the fruit from the native rimu tree (Dacrycarpus cupressinum) during mast years. We believe that this is how kākāpō get extra oestrogen from their diet, and that rimu and other native plants provide a hormone boost that is key to kākāpō reproduction.
Parrots more sensitive to oestrogen
In our current study, conducted by PhD graduate Dr Catherine Davis, we examined the receptivity of New Zealand and Australian parrots to a range of steroid compounds, including oestrogens, and compared it to those of other birds.
We tested various native plant species for oestrogenic content and we found that indeed there is a high amount of phytoestrogens in some of New Zealand’s native plants.
We then looked at the receptivity of parrots to this plant hormone. We studied the genetic makeup of the receptor that is activated by oestrogens in kākāpō, kea, kākā, kākāriki, the Australian cockatiel, and compared this with those in the chicken.
We found that the parrots’ oestrogen receptor was different. All of the parrot species have a unique sequence in the receptor gene, which may make them more sensitive to oestrogen, compared to other bird species, or humans.
In parrots, this receptor contains an extra eight amino acids in the region that binds the hormone.
By adding this amino acid sequence to a computer modelling programme based on the human oestrogen receptor, we have shown that this difference in the parrot-specific receptor would change the strength with which it binds to the oestrogen hormone.
The down-stream effects of this may be an increased sensitivity to plant oestrogens in parrots. This research supports the notion that the parrots’ oestrogen receptor responds differently to oestrogenic compounds in native trees in New Zealand during mast years.
We have previously confirmed the presence of oestrogenic activity in key compounds present in rimu and tōtara (Podocarpus totara), as well as extracts from a number of New Zealand plant species that kākāpō are known to graze. However, the chemical structures of the oestrogenic materials of most New Zealand native plants are not known.
The question remains why the rate of successful breeding of kākāpō in mast years is lower than that of other parrot species. The identification of plant chemicals capable of binding to the parrot oestrogen receptor together with information about plant grazing behaviours of parrots may provide new insights into the conservation of the species that are in decline.
With further research, we are hoping to identify the specific compound in native plants that elicits these oestrogenic properties. This information may enable us to synthesise this compound in the lab. It could then be administered in some way to increase the fertility of our native parrots.