The Murray Darling Basin Plan is not delivering – there’s no more time to waste



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Despite billions spent on trying to save water in the Murray Darling Basin, results have been disappointing.
John Williams, Author provided

Quentin Grafton, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University; Darla Hatton MacDonald, University of Tasmania; David Paton, University of Adelaide; Graham Harris, University of Wollongong; Henning Bjornlund, University of South Australia; Jeffery D Connor, University of South Australia; John Quiggin, The University of Queensland; John Williams, Australian National University; Lin Crase, University of South Australia; Richard Kingsford, UNSW, and Sarah Ann Wheeler, University of Adelaide

More than five years after the Murray Darling Basin Plan was implemented, it’s clear that it is not delivering on its key objectives.

The Basin Plan, at its core, is about reducing the amount of water that can be extracted from its streams, rivers and aquifers. It includes an environmental water strategy to improve the conditions of the wetlands and rivers of the basin.
The Productivity Commission will conduct a five-yearly inquiry into the effectiveness of the Basin Plan in 2018.

It is high time to explain what is really going on in the Basin and water recovery. For this reason we have all signed the Murray-Darling Basin Declaration to explain what has gone wrong, to call for a freeze on funding for new irrigation projects until the outcomes of water recovery has been fully and independently audited, and to call for the establishment of an independent, expert body to deliver on the key goals of the Water Act (2007).




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Until the ABC’s 4 Corners program in July last year, many Australians were unaware of alleged water theft and grossly deficient compliance along the Darling River. The true situation stands in stark contrast to the official view that all was well.

Some A$6 billion has been spent on “water recovery” in the Murray-Darling Basin. Of this, A$4 billion was used to subsidise irrigation infrastructure. This water recovery and the 2012 Basin Plan have been presented as a comprehensive solution to the environmental and economic problems of the Murray-Darling. But what has this huge public expenditure actually bought us?

The basin remains in a poor state. While there have been environmental improvements at specific sites, these have not been replicated basin-wide. Indeed, the federal government’s own State of the Environment Report 2016 gives a “poor” assessment on inland water flows in the basin. It reports long-term downward trends in flows since 2011 and a widespread loss of ecosystem function. Other evidence tells the same story.

Water recovery infrastructure projects have benefited irrigators, but for many of these projects there is no scientific evidence that they have actually increased net stream flows. Flows at the Murray River mouth remain inadequate. The federal government’s objective to keep the mouth open to the sea 90% of the time will almost certainly not be achieved.

The Murray mouth remains in a dire statedredging to keep it open is the norm rather than the exception, even without a drought.

How is it possible to spend A$6 billion on water recovery in the basin and have so little to show for it? It is now more than 11 years since the A$10 billion National Plan for Water Security was announced, seven years since the Millennium Drought ended, and the Australian government is already 70% towards achieving its water recovery goal. Surely, by now, Australian taxpayers – not to mention the river’s ecosystems – should be seeing a better return on this bold environmental investment?

Bad decisions

We have spent much of our working lives investigating water reforms and the health of the Murray-Darling Basin. We deplore the diversion of funds for environmental recovery into irrigation upgrades – a decision that simply represents poor public policy. Much more could have been achieved for far less, as federal government data show that buying water from willing sellers is 60% cheaper than building questionable engineering works.

To make matters worse, just two months ago the Murray-Darling Basin Authority recommended to parliament that buying back of environmental flows be reduced by 22% by July 1, 2019. This is an average annual reduction that exceeds the volume of water in Sydney Harbour.

Instead, 36 water supply projects are planned to deliver this water recovery goal. Yet 25 of them fail to satisfy the Basin Plan’s own conditions of approval such as environmental risks are adequately mitigated.

Plans are also afoot to “invest” A$1.5 billion in yet more infrastructure projects that will supposedly be the equivalent of 450 billion litres per year of water by 2024. South Australia demanded this extra water before it would approve the 2012 Basin Plan.

An algal bloom in the Darling River at Louth.
John Williams, Author provided

Despite spending A$4 billion to reduce water losses from irrigation over the past decade, we still do not know what impact this has had on the water that previously flowed from farmers’ paddocks and returned to wetlands, rivers and aquifers. The decline in these flows might have completely offset increases in environmental flows from water rights acquired through subsidies.

It is time to call it like it is. Australia is paying the price of alleged water theft, questionable environmental infrastructure water projects, and policies that subsidise private benefits at the expense of taxpayers and sustainability.

Accountability requires transparency in reporting and monitoring. So far we have failed to redirect public money away from wasteful subsidies while the rivers suffer. This is why we have signed the Murray-Darling Declaration, to highlight our concerns and to offer solutions.

Steps to change

Many aspects of water reform need to change, but three steps are necessary to deliver fully on the key objectives of the Water Act 2007. These are:

  1. Stop any further expenditures on subsidies or grants for irrigation infrastructure in the Murray-Darling Basin until there is an independent, scientific and economic audit of what A$4 billion delivered in volumes of water and environmental outcomes.

  2. Audit all water recovery and planned sustainable diversion limit (SDL) adjustments in the basin, including details of environmental water recovered, expenditures and actual environmental outcomes, especially in terms of stream flows at all special environmental assets, including the Murray Mouth.

  3. Establish an independent expert scientific advisory body to monitor the basin’s health and to publicly guide all governments to ensure the full achievement of key objectives of the Water Act 2007. These are: to restore overallocated resources to environmentally sustainable levels of extraction; and to protect, restore and provide for the ecological values and ecosystem services of the Murray-Darling Basin.




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There is no time to waste for the Murray-Darling Basin, its rivers, environments, traditional owners, and communities. Our declaration makes it clear what must be done. The federal and state governments must be held to account and actually deliver what is needed for the basin, before the next big drought causes irreversible damage.


This article was co-authored by Richard Davis, a former chief science adviser to the National Water Commission.

The ConversationThis article is co-published with Policy Forum at the Crawford School of Public Policy.

Quentin Grafton, Director of the Centre for Water Economics, Environment and Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University; Darla Hatton MacDonald, Associate Professor, University of Tasmania; David Paton, Associate Professor, University of Adelaide; Graham Harris, Professorial Fellow, University of Wollongong; Henning Bjornlund, Professor, University of South Australia; Jeffery D Connor, Professor in Water Economics, University of South Australia; John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland; John Williams, Adjunct Professor Environment and Natural Resources, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University; Lin Crase, Professor of Economics and Head of School, University of South Australia; Richard Kingsford, Professor, School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, UNSW, and Sarah Ann Wheeler, Professor in Water Economics, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Cat plague is back after nearly 40 years in hiding – here’s what you need to know


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No cases of feline parvovirus were reported from the 1980s until 2015.
Simone Dalmeri

Mark Westman, University of Sydney and Richard Malik, University of Sydney

A deadly feline disease is now spreading between cats after hiding in nature for nearly 40 years. Multiple cases of feline parvovirus, also known as cat plague, or panleukopenia, have been reported in stay kittens in the greater Melbourne area this week.

Feline parvovirus was a common disease in the 1960s and 1970s. Australia was one of the first countries to develop an effective vaccine. Once widespread vaccination became routine, the disease was pushed back into nature.

Most cases of parvovirus are in kittens and young cats.
Raphael Schaller

In the 1970s, cases were typically seen in unvaccinated kittens purchased from markets or pet stores, and in shelters where vaccination protocols were lax.

Between the early 1980s and 2015, cases were unreported, but no doubt feral and semi-owned cats were still sporadically infected.

The re-emergence first occurred in animal shelters in Mildura and Melbourne in 2016 and south-western Sydney in 2016. Many cats died. Even survivors suffered greatly. In all these outbreaks, affected cats had one thing in common – they had not been vaccinated.

What is feline parvovirus and how does it kill?

Feline parvovirus has a predilection for infecting rapidly dividing tissues. Cells lining the small intestine of infected cats are killed, resulting in vomiting, diarrhoea (often bloody), fever, lethargy, anorexia and sometimes sudden death.

The bone marrow is transiently wiped out by the virus, resulting in a depletion of white blood cells. As a result, infected cats are unable to fight the invasion by secondary bacteria that attack the leaky gut wall.




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Most cases of feline parvovirus are in unvaccinated kittens or young cats. The welfare of cats is hugely impacted by this terrible disease – it makes cats miserable for many days, if they survive.

Treatment involves intensive therapy in hospital: intravenous fluids by infusion pump, medication to reduce vomiting, expensive anti-viral treatment (omega-interferon), opioids for pain relief, antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections, and occasionally blood or plasma transfusions and nutritional support (feeding tubes).

This eight-week-old kitten, Cola, wasn’t vaccinated and contracted feline parvovirus. She needed a transfusion and recovered from the infection.
David Hughes

Treatment can costs thousands of dollars, and many owners just can’t afford it. But even with treatment, the fatality rate remains high.

Feline parvovirus is spread by faeco-oral contamination: from infected cats shedding virus in their faeces. Litter trays and natural latrines (such as sandboxes) are prime sources of infection.

This may occur where infected cats are kept close to uninfected cats (in shelters and pounds), and in homes where cats have outdoor access. But you can track feline parvovirus into your house on your shoes or clothing, so even 100% indoor cats are not safe.

Feline parvovirus can usually be quickly diagnosed by veterinarians using rapid point-of-care test kits and then confirmed in a lab.

There is no risk of this virus spreading to human patients.

How did it re-emerge?

Feline parvovirus was never completely eliminated from the Australian cat population and instead has been maintained at low levels in the unowned and feral cat population for the past 40 years. Remember, there are perhaps six times as many unowned cats than owned cats in Australia!

This adaptable virus also has the potential to infect foxes and wild dogs, only later to be passed back to cats, providing a variety of potential environmental reservoirs.




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Perhaps with an increased effort to rehabilitate and rehome “fringe dwelling cats”, it was inevitable that the virus would spill back from these unvaccinated cats into the general pet cat population, given waning herd immunity.

Consistent with this hypothesis is the first outbreak occurring in rural Mildura, a somewhat underprivileged socioeconomic area (government figures show the median household income is A$878 per week), and subject to incursions by feral cats, foxes and wild dogs – including dogs used for hunting.

Unvaccinated pet cats permitted the re-emergence of the virus.
David Vázquez

It is our suspicion that the cost of vaccinating the family cat (currently more than A$200 for a kitten requiring a course of two to three vaccines) exceeds the budget for many pet owners.

The best protection for any cat (and every cat) is widespread vaccination of as many cats as possible in the community at large. This “herd immunity” is the best protection against this highly contagious, persistent, resistant virus. When vaccination rates fall below 70%, cat populations are in trouble.

How do we protect pet cats?

Vaccination against feline parvovirus is highly effective (more than 99%) and is given by veterinarians as part of an F3 or F4 vaccine at the same time as a routine health check.

The Australian Veterinary Association recently recommended all cats be vaccinated annually. But with the modern range of vaccines, there is good evidence that in kittens older than 16 weeks, a single vaccination produces immunity which last several years

If a kitten has received two or three kitten vaccinations (the last one at 16-18 weeks of age), and a booster one year later, it likely has excellent protection against the virus, probably for several years, and possibly for life.

Is it time to vaccinate?
Krista Mangulsone

If your adult cat has received an annual vaccination in the past three years, it likely has excellent protection.

If your cat is more than three years overdue for its vaccination, it is sensible to visit your local veterinarian soon. Your cat will develop or maintain excellent protection within a few days of vaccination.

But what about unowned and feral cats?

We need to support efforts to vaccinate cats that have never been vaccinated against feline parvovirus – cats owned by people who are unable to afford vaccinations, and cats that have been dumped and are now unowned and free-roaming.

New South Wales is making some progress in this area. The NSW Cat Protection Society responded to a 2017 outbreak by subsidising free vaccinations for cat owners in Sydney. RSPCA NSW has ongoing targeted low-cost vaccination programs for cat owners, particularly in regional and remote areas of NSW.

Trap-neuter and return programs, while controversial, usually involve administering a F3/F4 vaccination to unowned and feral cats, thereby boosting herd immunity against feline parvovirus and also possibly reducing cat numbers.




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Finally, for people who cannot afford veterinary care because of their life circumstances, Pets in the Park and similar charities can provide another option for vaccination.

The ConversationRemember, the larger the proportion of the cat population that is vaccinated, the less chance any cat and every cat has of becoming infected. Stated another way, it’s far more effective to maximise the proportion of the cat population that is vaccinated, rather than over-vaccinating only a limited proportion of cats.

Mark Westman, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Sydney and Richard Malik, Veterinary Internist (Specialist), University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.