New Royal Commission into water theft may be just the tip of iceberg for the Murray Darling Basin


Jamie Pittock, Australian National University

Last weekend South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill announced the establishment of a Royal Commission to investigate breaches of the Murray Darling Basin Agreement.

This follows apparently egregious behaviour by some irrigators and state government regulators in New South Wales. Yet the alleged theft of water in the Murray-Darling Basin is only the tip of the iceberg when we consider the institutional problems – namely the capture of state government agencies by powerful irrigation interests.

Take NSW as an example. In 1993 the then state Department of Water Resources’ North west rivers audit found the same theft, meter-tampering and questionable government oversight exposed again by the ABC’s Four Corners investigation in July.

Only half of the targeted volume of salt has been flushed out to sea and the water supply to Broken Hill and other communities has become unreliable. Moreover, floodplain forests and wetlands of international significance continue to decline, and native fish and water bird populations have flatlined.

In fact, many values are at risk in the river system that supplies water to more than 3 million people, and covers a seventh of Australia’s landmass. It is not only a few (alleged) bad apples, it is governance of water that is broken.

Problems with the existing plan

While bad behaviour in NSW is evident, of more concern is the way some state governments are frustrating implementation of the A$13 billion 2012-26 Basin Plan and associated programs to recover water for the river system.

If the Basin Plan is to improve the health of the river and its extensive floodplain forests along the lower River Murray, the water recovered for the environment needs to be released in pulses. That will be the best way to ensure it can rise out of the river channel and inundate wetlands.


Read more: Is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan broken?


In this context it is unhelpful for the Victorian Government to propose flows of around half the previously agreed size because of the objections of a small number of landowners along the Goulburn River in its Goulburn key focus area project.

Upstream, state governments have rules that allow water purchased by taxpayers for the river to be extracted by irrigators when it crosses state borders. However, they are failing to remove bottlenecks that prevent managed floods from travelling safely down rivers. They have even proposed to reduce the water available for the environment below minimum requirements.

Astonishingly, 30% of water extraction points in the Basin are still not metered and the information that is collected is not publicly available or audited so that theft can be penalised.

Sustainable management required

Sustainable management of the Murray-Darling Basin requires trust and cooperation among the responsible state, ACT and federal governments.

The alleged water theft in NSW breaks that trust, especially for SA as the downstream state that relies on the River Murray. But so too does the stalling of implementation of the Basin Plan agreement and manipulation of the rules that govern who gets what water and when they get it.


Read more: ‘Tax returns for water’: satellite-audited statements can save the Murray-Darling


The foundation of trust is transparency. As a start, there are many opportunities for online recording of water allocations and use to increase trust. It is still possible to fix implementation of the Plan.

In a report released yesterday the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists has identified several solutions, including metering all water diversions, completing water recovery, and investing in regional development.

The good news is that there are signs of political leadership. The Council of Australian Governments promised in June to deliver the Basin Plan “in full and on time” for its planned commencement in 2019.

Recently, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recommitted the federal government to Basin Plan implementation. He endorsed the far-reaching recommendations of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s Basin-wide Compliance Review to strengthen enforcement of water laws and the Basin Plan, and to recover the remaining environmental water.

The SA Royal Commission

Beginning in 2018, Weatherill’s newly announced Royal Commission will investigate breaches of the Murray Darling Basin Agreement, and the Commissioner “will examine the adequacy of existing legislation and practices and make recommendations for any necessary changes.”

Most significantly, Weatherill has proposed going beyond water theft to “look into whether any legislative or policy changes since the agreement was signed in 2012 have been inconsistent with the purpose of the Basin Agreement and Basin Plan”.


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


The Royal Commission’s terms of reference are not yet available and the extent of cooperation of upstream governments is highly uncertain (NSW has already said it will not cooperate). Yet the Royal Commission could help identify ways to better meter and account for water, improve compliance and set rules to protect environmental water.

At the next Basin Ministerial Council meeting later this year the governments need to map out measures to put the Plan back on track. If it can do so, it will be endorsed at the Council of Australian Governments in 2018. This is their opportunity to articulate precisely how they will fulfil their commitment to delivering the basin plan in full and on time.

The ConversationThe Murray-Darling Basin Plan is not perfect. Implementation has problems, but with the remaining $5.1 billion allocated funds and proper leadership it can be well implemented to benefit both people and the environment.

Jamie Pittock, Director, International Programs, UNESCO Chair in Water Economics and Transboundary Water Governance, Australian National University

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

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Did they mean to do that? Accident and intent in an octopuses’ garden



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A gloomy octopus perched above a bed of discarded scallop shells.
Peter Godfrey-Smith , Author provided

Martin Hing, University of Wollongong and Peter Godfrey-Smith, University of Sydney

We recently published a scientific report of octopuses living together in unusual numbers at a site on the south coast of New South Wales.

Then things got a little out of hand.


Read more: Octopuses invade Welsh beach – here are the scientific theories why


Gloomy octopus

The gloomy octopus, named for large eyes that can give the animal a doleful appearance, is the most common local octopus in NSW waters. Octopus tetricus, to use its scientific name, has usually been thought of as a solitary animal, and that has been the stereotype associated with most octopus species for many years.

The recent discovery of a site in Jervis Bay, Australia where these octopuses gather in quite high numbers is challenging that perception, and revealing some striking behaviours.

The site consists of three rocky outcrops, around which octopuses have built up an extensive bed of discarded scallop shells, mixed with some human debris.

A gloomy octopus swims over scattered scallop shells.
Peter Godfrey-Smith, Author provided

We think there is a process of “positive feedback” operating at the site. As scallops are brought back to the site to eat, the discarded shells provide material for additional octopuses to dig burrows. The shells line and stabilise the shaft-like dens. When the site was discovered in 2016, a total of 15 octopuses were present, along with several unoccupied dens.

This is the second site of its kind discovered. The first, reported in 2012, seems to have been formed around a discarded object, now very encrusted, of human origin.

The second site, which is entirely “natural,” shows that the same gathering of octopuses can occur without a “seeding” of the process by a human artefact.

At both sites, octopuses engage in quite complicated interactions – they produce displays, probe each other with their arms, and often try to evict other octopuses from their dens.

Other individuals of this species probably do live more solitary lives – when observed around Sydney, for example, they are almost always alone. This suggests that the octopuses have an ability to individually adapt their behaviour according to their circumstances.

Underwater city?

In September 2017, our scientific report of the second site was published, written with our colleagues David Scheel, Stephanie Chancellor, Stefan Linquist, and Matt Lawrence.

This paper received a good deal of media attention, with initial stories fairly accurate. But they seem to have started a self-sustaining process of their own, especially as a couple of early reports used the term “city” in their title. For example: “Scientists discover an underwater city full of gloomy octopuses.”

Gloomy octopus on the move.
Peter Godfrey-Smith, Author provided

This was probably influenced by the nickname chosen for the site, “Octlantis,” though our article did not talk about “cities” or anything similar. Soon the authors were fielding interview requests from around the world, wanting more details of the hidden octopus city and the lives of its denizens.

New online articles about the site seemed to build successively on exaggerations made in earlier articles, until our octopuses were reported as making “art” and building “fences”.

Octlantis is not a city, and no artworks, fences, or buildings have been made. In an era of rapid and unconstrained circulation of information around the internet, often with important political ramifications, the buzz around Octlantis is a reminder of how quickly rumours can arise and feed off each other, generating a literature that becomes less and less accurate at each step.

Accident versus intent

The Octlantis site does raise interesting questions about what the octopuses intend to do, and which effects of their actions are entirely inadvertent. Questions of “intent” are very difficult in work on animal behaviour, but we think some distinctions can be made – provisionally at least – in these terms.

Octopuses collect scallops for use as food. This requires them to make excursions from their den and find their way home. They bring the scallops home to eat, we assume, because it is safer than eating in the open. They also dig dens in the shell bed, and sometimes arrange shells and other objects around the edge of their den.

It seems quite likely to us that the collection of scallops and the building and maintenance of dens are all intentional behaviours (in a low-key sense of that term).

Why so gloomy, octopus?
Peter Godfrey-Smith, Author provided

Dens are sometimes maintained with some care, and octopuses will expel debris either by carrying it away, or with use of their jet propulsion mechanism, the “siphon.” But this does not imply that octopuses have any inkling that when they bring scallops back to the site, they are improving the den-building possibilities for themselves or others. Those effects may be entirely inadvertent.

Work is continuing on these animals and their unusual homes. One interesting question is whether other octopus species behave like this in some circumstances.

Another is why we observe groups of gloomy octopuses at these particular sites, and not in other areas where a solid object has been placed on the sea floor in what looks like similar circumstances.

The ConversationHow many octopuses’ gardens are out there, waiting to be discovered?

Martin Hing, PhD Researcher in marine and behavioural ecology, University of Wollongong and Peter Godfrey-Smith, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Sydney

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

Research suggests Tony Abbott’s climate views are welcome in the Hunter Valley



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AAP

Vanessa Bowden, University of Newcastle

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott this week drew renewed attention to himself with a speech to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a London-based climate sceptic group, in which he voiced a range of doubts about climate science and policy, and claimed that climate change is “probably doing good”.

The comments might come as no surprise to those familiar with his views. But what’s arguably more surprising is the prevalence of similar opinions among some Australian business leaders.

My research, published this week in the journal Environmental Sociology, features interviews with business leaders in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales – a major coal-producing hub.

It reveals that Abbott’s doubts about the veracity of climate science and its forecast impacts, and his scathing dismissal of those concerned about climate change, have a long history of support among the Hunter Valley’s business leaders.


Read more: A brief history of fossil-fuelled climate denial

Carried out in the lead-up to the implementation of the Gillard Labor government’s price on carbon in 2011, my research sought to understand business leaders’ attitudes to government policies and to climate change more broadly.

I approached 50 chief executives of organisations operating in the Hunter Region, of whom 31 agreed to participate (or had a senior staff member take up the opportunity).

They were asked questions about their views on climate change, how and whether their organisation was responding to the issue, and what they thought about the various political parties’ policies in response to it.

Perhaps not surprisingly, participants’ overwhelming concern was that the economy might decline as a result of climate policies such as pricing carbon.

While some were concerned about climate change, there was almost unanimous opposition to carbon pricing. Given the politics of the time, this too is unremarkable, particularly in light of the success Abbott enjoyed at the 2013 election after pledging to scrap the policy.

What was surprising, however, was the pervasive scepticism among participants about the science of climate change. This is especially the case given that many people now view the debate over whether climate change is happening – and whether it is caused by human activity – as being over.

Moreover, many participants believed that climate scientists were motivated by financial rewards in arguing that climate change is a serious concern.

These beliefs were voiced not only by those in industries like coal, aluminium, and shipping – but echoed by participants from other industries, revealing a deep scepticism of both the discipline and the science of climate change itself.

It is noteworthy that the research was focused on the Hunter Valley and Newcastle, home to the world’s biggest coal port.

Participants also held intensely antagonistic views in relation to the environment movement and the Australian Greens, believing their views were quasi-religious and that they too were self-interested and unrealistic in wanting to tackle climate change.

Striking views

In some ways the extremity of these comments was striking. Although prominent in writings by conservative columnists at the time, the broader debate was much more focused on jobs and the economy.

A small minority of participants did support some type of mechanism to limit greenhouse emissions, and were concerned about the environment.

But more broadly, my research showed that the Hunter Region’s business leaders – whether or not they were directly involved in coal – had taken on board many of the arguments promulgated by the industry in its ultimately successful campaign against carbon pricing in Australia.


Read more: Hashtags v bashtags: a brief history of mining advertisements and their backlashes


These dynamics may have changed a little in recent times, with companies such as AGL and BHP shifting away from coal.

The overall dynamics of the climate politics, however – as revealed in the current stalemate over responding to the Finkel Review – remains out of step with what the climate science is telling us. As, of course, do Abbott’s comments.

The ConversationAbbott’s London speech was interpreted as incendiary, and earned him a sharp rebuke from government colleagues. But when we look at the places where his message might be received more favourably, it becomes apparent there are still pockets of the country where he might expect to find a plentiful and powerful audience.

Vanessa Bowden, Associate Lecture in Social Enquiry, University of Newcastle

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

Australia: NSW – Solid Fuel Fires Banned Until Further Notice


The link below is to a media release concerning the banning of solid fuel fires in State Forests throughout NSW due to bushfire concerns.

For more visit:
http://www.forestrycorporation.com.au/about/releases/solid-fuel-fires-banned-in-state-forests

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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

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



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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.