Is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan broken?


Ross M Thompson, University of Canberra

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.

Basic principles

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.

The ConversationOnly then will the fragile trust that underlies the water reform process be maintained and built.

Ross M Thompson, Chair of Water Science and Director, University of Canberra

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

Australia: Sydney – Green and Golden Bell Frog


The link below is to a media release concerning the Green and Golden Bell Frog, an endangered frog species in New South Wales, Australia.

For more visit:
http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/media/OEHMedia17071801.htm

We need more than just extra water to save the Murray-Darling Basin



File 20170630 5925 11hv2e1
The Murray-Darling Basin is an incredibly complex ecological system.
Mike Russell/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Max Finlayson, Charles Sturt University; Lee Baumgartner, Charles Sturt University, and Peter Gell, Federation University Australia

After a long and contentious public debate, in 2012 Australia embarked on a significant and expensive water recovery program to restore the Murray-Darling Basin’s ecosystems.

Despite general agreement that a certain amount of water should be reserved to restore the flagging river system, the argument continues as to whether this should be 2,750 or 3,200 gigalitres (GL) a year, and how these savings can be achieved.

A recent report by the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists argues that there is no conclusive evidence, after five years, that the plan is effective. The report’s authors believe that an extra 450GL of water a year needs to be recovered to save the basin.

There is no doubt in our minds that the Murray-Darling river system is in crisis, and the Basin Plan was vitally needed. But while we broadly agree with the Wentworth Group’s report, it’s a mistake to focus on water volume alone.

Without giving equal attention to improving water quality and building critical ecological infrastructure, it’s possible that increasing river flows could actually harm the Basin.

What are we trying to recover?

We don’t really have much information on the state of the basin before industrial development. Most knowledge is more recent, but we do know that from about the 1920s onwards, considerable volumes of water have been removed. Few comprehensive historic records of flora and fauna, let alone water quality, are available.

While knowledge of the state and significance of the ecology of the river systems is scant, there is ample evidence that increased levels of nutrients, salts and, in particular, sediments have adversely affected the wetlands, main channels and associated floodplains.

The records of fish that historically lived in the rivers, billabongs and wetlands also tell a cautionary tale. These wetlands and rivers once teemed with native fish. In 1915, a single scoop of a 10 m seine net would yield more than 100,000 native fish in a single wetland.

There were dozens of species at each site, supporting a burgeoning fishery that was considered inexhaustible.

An example of extreme overfishing of Murray cod in the late 1800s, which caused the first strong declines in the species. Such catches were typical for the period.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murray_cod

Since that time the basin has been extensively developed. The fishing industry expanded, forests were cleared, dams were built, floodplains were blocked by levies, water began to be diverted for irrigation, the demand for drinking water increased and invasive species were introduced. But somewhere over the past 100 years we crossed a threshold where the system stopped being able to support native fish.

Nowadays, visiting the wetlands that were historically packed with native fish (all of which had huge cultural importance to traditional owners), we find mostly invasive species such as carp, goldfish and weatherloach.

In some places, native species that were once abundant have not been seen in 40 years. The formerly productive commercial fisheries, and the livelihoods they supported, have been shut down.

Our native fish are in trouble, and unless urgent action is taken, many face extinction within decades.

Rebuilding a complex system

The Basin Plan is underpinned by a focus on river volume as the cause of system degradation and subsequent recovery. But the system is much more complex than that. Fluctuating levels of sediments, salts and nutrients drive significant changes, and so regulating river flows – which carry these components from place to place – fundamentally alters the dynamics of main channels and floodplain wetlands.

Over the last century, erosion has filled the rivers in the Murray system with mud. When this water flows into the wetlands, this sediment builds and blocks the light, killing the aquatic plants that support native fish.

Simply increasing the water flow without addressing water quality runs the risk of exacerbating this problem. We therefore argue the first step in river recovery is attending to water quality.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan has focused very heavily on the amount of water in the system; partly because speaking in terms of volume is easiest to demonstrate and understand. But the paleoecological record reveals that water quality, at least in wetlands, declined well before human use of water changed the river flows.

So if recovering water volume is a critical target, it is equally important that this water is of good quality. Recent experience with blackwater events, in which oxygen levels drop so low that fish suffocate, highlights this need. Even water of the wrong temperature, known as “thermal pollution”, can cause real harm. Winter-temperature water, for example, can prevent fish from breeding if it occurs in summer. Bad water quality will simply not provide good ecological outcomes.

A century of engineering development has fundamentally changed the basins rivers in a way that does not support native fish or the original ecology in general. Even if the recovered water is of high quality, we will need to take other steps to achieve tangible outcomes. Thus we need “complementary measures”, which augment the benefits of increasing river volumes. These include:

  • Mitigating thermal and other pollution to ensure the water temperature and overall quality is adequate,
  • Building fishways so that fish can navigate dams and weirs,
  • Restocking threatened fish species into areas they are no longer found,
  • Controlling carp and other non-native species that now dominate our waterways;
  • Building fish-friendly irrigation infrastructure such as screens on irrigation pumps or overshot weirs; and
  • Improving habitat through resnagging or controlling harmful practices on flood plains.

Another measure to improve the basin’s waterways, the proposal to release a virulent strain of carp herpes, has raised debate over whether it will neatly solve a major environmental and economic problem or create further issues.

If implemented correctly, these complementary measures are just as important as water recovery and improving water quality for meeting the basin plan’s ecological targets.

The ConversationRepairing a river system such as the Murray-Darling is incredibly complex, and we must broaden our view beyond simply thinking about water volumes. Some of these extra steps can also provide benefits with less cost to the people who live and work with the water. To achieve this we suggest a staged program of recovery that allows the communities who live in the basin more time to adapt to the plan.

Max Finlayson, Director, Institute for Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University; Lee Baumgartner, Associate Research Professor (Fisheries and River Management), Institute for Land, Water, and Society, Charles Sturt University, and Peter Gell, Professor of Environmental Management, Federation University Australia

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

How our research is helping clean up coal-mining pollution in a World Heritage-listed river



Image 20170329 1674 1tkl166
The Wollangambe River’s canyons are loved by adventurers.
Ben Green

Ian Wright, Western Sydney University

The Wollangambe River in New South Wales is a unique gift of nature, flowing through the stunning Wollemi National Park, wilderness areas and the World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains. It’s an adventure tourism hotspot, with thousands of people clambering through the river’s majestic canyons each year.

So it was with a sense of irony that bushwalkers noticed unnatural flow and discolouration in the river and suspected it was pollution. In 2012 they contacted Western Sydney University, which has since conducted ongoing investigations.

The pollution was traced back to the Clarence Colliery, owned by Centennial Coal. Our recent research confirms that this is one of the worst cases of coal mine pollution in Australia, and indeed the world.

For four years I and other researchers have been investigating the pollution and its impacts on the river. The NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) has verified our findings. In exciting news, the mine was in March issued a revised environmental licence, which we believe is the most stringent ever issued to an Australian coal mine.

This is appropriate given the conservation significance of the river and the current scale of the pollution. We are now hopeful that the pollution of the Wollangambe River may soon be stopped.

Water pollution damages the river and its ecology

The Clarence Colliery is an underground mine constructed in 1980. It is just a few kilometres from the boundary of the Blue Mountains National Park.

Clarence Colliery and Wollangambe River.
Ian Wright

Our research revealed that waste discharges from the mine cause a plume of water pollution at least 22km long, deep within the conservation area. The mine constantly discharges groundwater, which accumulates in underground mines. The water is contaminated through the mining process. The mine wastes contributed more than 90% of the flow in the upper reaches of the river.

The EPA regulates all aspects of the mining operation relating to pollution. This includes permission to discharge waste water to the Wollangambe River, provided that it is of a specified water quality.

Our research found that the wastes totally modified the water chemistry of the river. Salinity increased by more than ten times below the mine. Nickel and zinc were detected at levels that are dangerous to aquatic species.

We surveyed aquatic invertebrates, mostly insects, along the river and confirmed that the mine waste was devastating the river’s ecology. The abundance of invertebrates dropped by 90% and the number of species was 65% lower below the mine waste outfall than upstream and in tributary streams. Major ecological impacts were still detected 22km downstream.

We shared our early research findings with the NSW EPA in 2014. The authority called for public submissions and launched an investigation using government scientists from the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage. Their study confirmed our findings.

Progress was interrupted when tonnes of sediment from the mine were dislodged in 2015 after heavy rainfall and the miner and the EPA focused on cleaning the sediment from the river. This incident has resulted in the EPA launching a prosecution in the NSW Land and Environment Court.

We recently compared the nature and scale of pollution from this mine with other coal mine pollution studies. The comparison confirms that this is one of the most damaging cases of coal mine water pollution in Australia, or internationally.

Even 22km below the waste outfall, the Wollangambe is still heavily polluted and its ecosystems are still degraded. One of the unique factors is that this mine is located in an otherwise near-pristine area of very high conservation value.

New licence to cut pollution

The new EPA licence was issued March 1, 2017. It imposes very tight limits on an extensive suite of pollutant concentrations that the mine is permitted to discharge to the Wollangambe River.

The licence covers two of the most dangerous pollutants in the river: nickel and zinc. Nickel was not included in the former licence.

The new licence now includes a sampling point on the river where it flows into the World Heritage area, about 1km downstream from the mine. The licence specifies vastly lower concentrations of pollutants at this new sampling point.

For example, the permitted concentration of zinc has been reduced from 1,500 micrograms per litre in the waste discharge, in the old licence, to 8 micrograms per litre.

It can be demoralising to witness growing pollution that is damaging the ecosystems with which we share our planet. This case study promises something different.

The actions of the EPA in issuing a new licence to the mine provide hope that the river might have a happy ending to this sad case study. The new licence comes into effect on June 5, 2017.

The ConversationOur current data suggest that water quality in the river is already improving. We dream that improved water quality, following this licence, will trigger a profoundly important ecological recovery. Now we just have to wait and see whether the mine can improve its waste treatment to meet the new standards.

Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University

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

The Sydney Barrier Reef: engineering a natural defence against future storms


Rob Roggema, University of Technology Sydney

The risk of more severe storms and cyclones in the highly urbanised coastal areas of Newcastle, Sydney and Wollongong might not be acute, but it is a real future threat with the further warming of the southern Pacific Ocean. One day a major storm – whether an East Coast Low or even a cyclone – could hit Sydney. The Conversation

With higher ocean temperatures killing and bleaching coral along the Great Barrier Reef to the north, we could also imagine where the right temperatures for a coral reef would be in a warmer climate. Most probably, this would be closer to the limits of the low latitudes, hence in front of the Sydney metro area.

We should then consider whether it is possible to help engineer a natural defence against storms, a barrier reef, should warming oceans make conditions suitable here.

Ocean warming trend is clear

The oceans are clearly warming at an alarming rate, with the unprecedented extent and intensity of coral bleaching events a marker of rising temperatures. After the 2016-2017 summer, coral bleaching affected two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef.

On the other side of the Pacific, sea surface temperatures off Peru’s northern coast have risen 5-6℃ degrees above normal. Beneath the ocean surface, the warming trend is consistent too.

The East Australian Current keeps the waters around Lord Howe Island warm enough to sustain Australia’s southernmost coral reef. The waters off Sydney are just a degree or two cooler.

With the East Australian Current now extending further south, the warming of these south-eastern coastal waters might be enough in a couple of decades for Nemo to swim in reality under Sydney Harbour Bridge.

This shift in ocean temperatures is expected to drive strong storms and inland floods, according to meteorologists.

On top of this, when we plot a series of maps since 1997 of cyclone tracks across the Pacific, it shows a slight shift to more southern routes. These cyclones occur only in the Tasman Sea and way out from the coast, but, still, there is a tendency to move further south. The northern part of New Zealand recently experienced the impacts this could have.

Think big to prepare for a big storm

If we would like to prevent what Sandy did to New York, we need to think big.

If we don’t want a storm surge entering Parramatta River, flooding the low-lying areas along the peninsulas, if we don’t want flash-flooding events as result of river discharges, if we don’t want our beaches to be washed away, if we want to keep our property along the water, and if we want to save lives, we’d better prepare to counter these potential events through anticipating their occurrence.

The coast is the first point where a storm impacts the city. Building higher and stronger dams have proven to be counterproductive. Once the dam breaks or overflows the damage is huge. Instead we should use the self-regenerating defensive powers nature offers us.

Thinking big, we could design a “Sydney Barrier Reef”, which allows nature to regenerate and create a strong and valuable coast.

The first 30-40 kilometres of the Pacific plateau is shallow enough to establish an artificial reef. The foundations of this new Sydney Barrier Reef could consist of a series of concrete, iron or wooden structures, placed on the continental shelf, just beneath the water surface. Intelligently composed to allow the ocean to bring plants, fish and sand to attach to those structures, it would then start to grow as the base for new coral.

This idea has not been tested for the Sydney continental flat yet. But in other parts of the world experiments with artificial reefs seem promising. At various sites, ships, metro carriages and trains seem to be working as the basis for marine life to create a new underworld habitat

The Sydney Barrier Reef will have the following advantages:

  1. Over decades a natural reef will grow. Coral will develop and a new ecosystem will emerge.

  2. This reef will protect the coast and create new sandbanks, shallow areas and eventually barrier islands, as the Great Barrier Reef has done.

  3. It will increase the beach area, because the conditions behind the reef will allow sediments to settle.

  4. It creates new surfing conditions as a result of the sandbanks.

  5. It will protect Sydney from the most severe storm surges as it breaks the surge.

  6. It will present a new tourist attraction of international allure.

Let’s create a pilot project as a test. Let’s start to design and model the pilot to investigate what happens in this particular location. Let’s simulate the increase of temperature over time and model the impact of a cyclone.

Let’s create, so when Sandy hits Sydney, we will be better protected.

Rob Roggema, Professor of Sustainable Urban Environments, University of Technology Sydney

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