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’s new marine parks plan is a case of the Emperor’s new clothes



File 20170724 28505 1oghl27
Orca family group at the Bremer Canyon off WA’s south coast.
R. Wellard, Author provided

Jessica Meeuwig, University of Western Australia and David Booth, University of Technology Sydney

The federal government’s new draft marine park plans are based on an unsubstantiated premise: that protection of Australia’s ocean wildlife is consistent with activities such as fishing and oil and gas exploration.

Under the proposed plans, there would be no change to the boundaries of existing marine parks, which cover 36% of Commonwealth waters, or almost 2.4 million square kilometres. But many areas inside these boundaries will be rezoned to allow for a range of activities besides conservation.

The plans propose dividing marine parks into three types of zones:

  • Green: “National Park Zones” with full conservation protection
  • Yellow: “Habitat Protection Zones” where fishing is allowed as long as the seafloor is not harmed
  • Blue: “Special Purpose Zones” that allow for specific commercial activities.

Crucially, under the new draft plans, the amount of green zones will be almost halved, from 36% to 20% of the marine park network, whereas yellow zones will almost double from 24% to 43%, compared with when the marine parks were established in 2012.

The government has said that this approach will “allow sustainable activities like commercial fishing while protecting key conservation features”.

But like the courtiers told to admire the Emperor’s non-existent new clothes, we’re being asked to believe something to be true despite strong evidence to the contrary.

The Emperor’s unrobing

The new plans follow on from last year’s release of an independent review, commissioned by the Abbott government after suspending the previous network of marine reserves implemented under Julia Gillard in 2012.

Yet the latest draft plans, which propose to gut the network of green zones, ignore many of the recommendations made in the review, which was itself an erosion of the suspended 2012 plans.

The extent of green zones is crucial, because the science says they are the engine room of conservation. Fully protected marine national parks – with no fishing, no mining, and no oil and gas drilling – deliver far more benefits to biodiversity than other zone types.

The best estimates suggest that 30-40% of the seascape should ideally be fully protected, rather than the 20% proposed under the new plans.

Partially protected areas, such as the yellow zones that allow fishing while protecting the seabed, do not generate conservation benefits equivalent to those of full protection.

While some studies suggest that partial protection is better than nothing, others suggest that these zones offer little to no improvement relative to areas fully open to exploitation.

Environment minister Josh Frydenberg has pointed out that, under the new plans, the total area zoned as either green or yellow will rise from 60% to 63% compared with the 2012 network. But yellow is not the new green. What’s more, yellow zones have similar management costs to green zones, which means that the government is proposing to spend the same amount of money for far inferior protection. And as any decent sex-ed teacher will tell you, partial protection is a risky business.

What do the draft plans mean?

Let’s take a couple of examples, starting with the Coral Sea Marine Park. This is perhaps the most disappointing rollback in the new draft plan. The green zone, which would have been one of the largest fully protected areas on the planet, has been reduced by half to allow for fishing activity in a significantly expanded yellow zone.

Coral Sea Marine Park zoning, as recommended by Independent Review (left) and in the new draft plan (right), showing the proposed expansion of partial protection (yellow) vs full protection (green).
From http://www.environment.gov.au/marinereservesreview/reports and https://parksaustralia.gov.au/marine/management/draft-plans/

This yellow zone would allow the use of pelagic longlines to fish for tuna. This is despite government statistics showing that around 30% of the catch in the Eastern Tuna and Billfish fishery consists of species that are either overexploited or uncertain in their sustainability, and the government’s own risk assessment that found these types of fishing lines are incompatible with conservation.

What this means, in effect, is that the plans to establish a world-class marine park in the Coral Sea will be significantly undermined for the sake of saving commercial tuna fishers A$4.1 million per year, or 0.3% of the total revenue from Australia’s wild-catch fisheries.

Contrast this with the A$6.4 billion generated by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in 2015-16, the majority of which comes from non-extractive industries.

This same erosion of protection is also proposed in Western Australia, where the government’s draft plan would reduce green zones by 43% across the largest marine parks in the region.

Zoning for the Gascoyne Marine Park as recommended by the Independent Review (left) and the new draft plan (right).
http://www.environment.gov.au/marinereservesreview/reports and https://parksaustralia.gov.au/marine/management/draft-plans/

Again, this is despite clear evidence that the fishing activities occurring in these areas are not compatible with conservation. Such proposals also ignore future pressures such as deep-sea mining.

The overall effect is summarised neatly by Frydenberg’s statement that the government’s plans will:

…increase the total area of the reserves open to fishing from 64% to 80% … (and) make 97% of waters within 100 kilometres of the coast open for recreational fishing.

Building ocean resilience

Science shows that full protection creates resilience by supporting intact ecosystems. Fully protected green zones recover faster from flooding and coral bleaching, have reduced rates of disease, and fend off climate invaders more effectively than areas that are open to fishing.

Green zones also contribute indirectly to the blue economy. They help support fisheries and function as “nurseries” for fish larvae. For commercial fisheries, these sanctuaries are more important than ever in view of the declines in global catches since we hit “peak fish” in 1996.

Of course it is important to balance conservation with sustainable economic use of our oceans. Yet the government’s new draft plan leaves a huge majority of Australia’s waters open to business as usual. It’s a brave Emperor who thinks this will protect our oceans.

The ConversationSo let’s put some real clothes on the Emperor and create a network of marine protection that supports our blue economy and is backed by science.

Jessica Meeuwig, Professor & Director, Marine Futures Lab, University of Western Australia and David Booth, Professor of Marine Ecology, University of Technology Sydney

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

Critical backbenchers push back on Finkel clean energy target plan



File 20170613 30327 yxk821
Josh Frydenberg’s task of garnering broad support for the Finkel scheme is proving to be more difficult than expected.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

A sizeable slice of his backbench has sent Malcolm Turnbull a forceful message that his road to implementing the clean energy target (CET) proposed by the Finkel inquiry will be rocky even within his own ranks.

After Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg gave an extensive briefing on the Finkel plan to the Coalition partyroom on Tuesday morning, MPs later reconvened for nearly three hours of questions and debate.

About one-third of the 30-32 who spoke expressed misgivings, according to Coalition sources. There was broad support from another third. The rest didn’t express a firm view, asking questions and seeking more information.

The report from the panel led by Chief Scientist Alan Finkel says a CET “will encourage new low emissions generation [below a threshold level of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour] into the market in a technology neutral fashion”.

A key issue will be where the government, which is disposed to adopt the Finkel plan, sets the threshold. It is clear that to accommodate the Nationals and a section of the Liberal Party it will have to be at a level that allows for the inclusion of “clean” coal.

The meeting was to gauge backbench views ahead of cabinet considering the report. Ministers, apart from the minister with carriage of the issue, don’t speak on these occasions.

Tony Abbott, who had publicly flagged his belief that the Finkel scheme represents a tax on coal, spoke strongly at the meeting.

The degree of pushback against a CET was stronger than had been anticipated, given the intense lobbying of the backbench that Frydenberg had done ahead of the meeting.

Frydenberg said afterwards: “I want to emphasise that this meeting was not making any decisions about Dr Finkel’s proposal. Rather, it was an information-gathering session.”

A common theme from backbenchers was that it was vital to be able to be confident the Finkel plan would make energy more affordable. A number of MPs, especially from outer suburban and regional areas, said affordability was what mattered most to their electorates.

Some questioned the Finkel modelling showing that prices would fall. The chairman of the backbench environment committee, Craig Kelly, said: “If you believe that you can lower prices by replacing existing coal-fired generation with higher-cost renewables, then I have a harbour bridge to sell you.”

Concern was expressed about the place of coal, and there was criticism of Finkel’s projection of an effective renewable energy target of 42% by 2030. Some backbenchers believed it would take the Coalition too close to Labor, which has a 50% target. There were also queries about the status of the Paris targets.

But Frydenberg told the ABC: “There was an overwhelming feeling among those in the party room tonight that business-as-usual is not an option.”

Asked on 7.30 “are you going to be able to get your colleagues to agree to support a clean energy target?,” Frydenberg replied: “It is too early to say.”

Finkel met with the government’s backbench environment committee on Tuesday to explain his plan and answer questions.

Frydenberg conceded that backbenchers “are concerned about the future of coal”. But he flatly rejected the Abbott suggestion that the Finkel plan amounted to a tax on coal, saying it was “absolutely not”.

“Dr Finkel has made it very clear he is not putting in place any prohibitions on coal or any form of generation capacity. He is putting in place incentives for lower emission generation. It is not a price on carbon or a tax on coal.”

The CET had “similarities to what John Howard put forward back in 2007”, Frydenberg said – a point he made in his briefing to the party meeting.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce also slapped down Abbott’s proposition that the CET amounted to a tax on coal, telling Sky that “Mr Abbott’s entitled to his opinion” but “there is no penalty placed on coal.

The Conversation“There is an advantage that is placed on those that are below the line. An advantage, because they get a section of a permit, which is like a payment. Those above the lines don’t … I suppose ipso facto it could be seen as not having the same advantage.”

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/icjdu-6b9a25?from=site&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

The plan to protect wildlife displaced by the Hume Highway has failed



File 20170525 13190 1ifqnnv
Hundreds of large old trees were removed when the Hume Highway was widened.
Brian Yap/Flickr, CC BY-NC

David Lindenmayer, Australian National University; Martine Maron, The University of Queensland; Megan C Evans, The University of Queensland, and Philip Gibbons, Australian National University

It’s no secret that human development frequently comes at a cost to other creatures. As our urban footprint expands, native habitat contracts. To compensate for this, most Australian governments require developers to invest in biodiversity offsetting, where habitat is created or protected elsewhere to counterbalance the impact of construction.

Researchers monitored hundreds of nest boxes used to offset habitat loss.
Mason Crane, Author provided

Although biodiversity offsetting is frequently used in Australia – and is becoming increasingly popular around the world – we rarely know whether offsets are actually effective.

That’s why we spent four years monitoring the program designed to offset the environmental losses caused by widening the Hume Highway between Holbrook and Coolac, New South Wales. Our research has found it was completely ineffective.


Map courtesy Google/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Trading trees for boxes

The roadworks required the removal of large, old, hollow-bearing trees, which are critical nesting sites for many animals, including several threatened species. To compensate for these losses, the developer was required to install one nest box for every hollow that was lost – roughly 600 nest boxes were installed.

Wild honeybees occupied many nest boxes.
Mason Crane, Author provided

Many of the boxes were specifically designed for three threatened species: the squirrel glider, the superb parrot and the brown treecreeper. We monitored the offset for four years to see whether local wildlife used the nest boxes.

We found that the nest boxes were rarely used, with just seven records of the squirrel glider, two of the brown treecreeper, and none of the superb parrot. We often saw all three species in large old tree hollows in the area around the boxes we monitored.

Even more worryingly, almost 10% of the boxes collapsed, were stolen or otherwise rendered ineffective just four years after being installed. Perversely, we found that invasive species such as feral bees and black rats frequently occupied the nest boxes.

The offset clearly failed to deliver the environmental outcomes that were promised. Indeed, researchers have been concerned for some time now that offsetting can be misused and abused.

What can be done?

It’s worth noting that research supports using nest boxes as a habitat replacement. However, they may never be effective for species such as the superb parrot. It’s not quite clear why some animals use nest boxes and others don’t, but earlier monitoring projects in the same area found superb parrots consistently avoid them.

Still, concrete steps can – and should – be taken to improve similar offset programs.

First, the one-to-one ratio of nest boxes to tree hollows was inadequate; far more nest boxes needed to be installed to replace the natural hollows that were lost.

There also was no requirement to regularly replace nest boxes as they degrade. It can take a hundred years or more for trees to develop natural hollows suitable for nesting wildlife. To truly offset their removal, thousands of boxes may be required over many decades.

An old hollow-bearing river red gum. Trees like this are vital habitat for many species.
Peter Halasz/Wikimedia commons, CC BY-SA

Second, nest boxes clearly cannot compensate for the many other key ecological values of large old trees (such as carbon storage, flowering pulses or foraging habitat). This suggests that more effort is needed at the beginning of a development proposal to avoid damaging environmental assets that are extremely difficult to replace – such as large old trees.

Third, where it is simply impossible to protect key features of the environment during infrastructure development, more holistic strategies should be considered. For example, in the case of the woodlands around the Hume Highway, encouraging natural regeneration can help replace old trees.

Tree planting on farms can also make a significant contribution to biodiversity – and some of these may eventually become hollow-bearing trees. A combination of planting new trees and maintaining adequate artificial hollows while those trees mature might be a better approach.

Being accountable for failure

When an offset program fails, it’s unlikely anyone will be asked to rectify the situation. This is because developers are only required to initiate an offset, and are not responsible for their long-term outcomes.

In the case of the Hume Highway development, the conditions of approval specified that nest boxes were to be installed, but not that they be effective.

Despite the ecological failure of the offset (and over A$200,000 invested), the developer has met these legal obligations.

This distinction between offset compliance and offset effectiveness is a real problem. The Australian government has produced a draft policy of outcomes-based conditions, but using these conditions isn’t mandatory.

The poor results of the Hume Highway offset program are sobering. However, organisations like Roads and Maritime Services are to be commended for ensuring that monitoring was completed and for making the data available for public scrutiny – many agencies do not even do that.

The ConversationIndeed, through monitoring and evaluation we can often learn more from failures than successes. There are salutary lessons here, critical to ensuring mistakes are not repeated.

David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University; Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Associate Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland; Megan C Evans, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Environmental Policy, The University of Queensland, and Philip Gibbons, Senior Lecturer, Australian National University

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

Turnbull unveils Snowy plan for pumped hydro, costing billions



Image 20170315 20537 1vbjvyr
The Snowy Hydro scheme already provides back-up energy to NSW and Victoria.
AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

In its latest move on energy policy, the Turnbull government has unveiled a plan to boost generation from the Snowy Hydro scheme by 50%. The Conversation

The government says the expansion, which it has labelled the Snowy Mountains Scheme 2.0, would add 2,000 megawatts of renewable energy to the National Electricity Market. This would be enough to power 500,000 homes.

Claiming the upgrading would be an “electricity game-changer”, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said that in one hour it would be able to produce 20 times the 100 megawatt-hours expected from the battery proposed this week by the South Australian government, but would deliver it constantly for almost a week.

Turnbull flew to the Snowy early Thursday to formally announce the plan. The commonwealth is a minority shareholder in the Snowy Hydro, with a 13% stake. New South Wales and Victoria have 58% and 29% stakes respectively.

The government, through the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), would examine several sites that could support large-scale pumped hydroelectric energy storage in the area, Turnbull said.

Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg said the cost would run into “billions of dollars”. It is being suggested it would be around A$2 billion. Frydenberg avoided being tied down on when it would be completed.

He said three new tunnels were being looked at, stretching 27 kilometres for the pumped hydro-facility. It would not involve new dams, but connect existing reservoirs and recycle water.

The plan had the potential to ensure there would be the needed renewable energy supply for those on the east coast at times of peak demand, Frydenberg said.

Tony Wood, energy program director at the Grattan Institute, cautioned that the plan would involve technical and economic issues, including whether it could make money, and to what extent it could contribute to solving the short-term power crisis.

“This isn’t some sort of magic panacea,” Wood told the ABC. Some hard-headed thinking was needed on what it would do and how it would work.

Turnbull said: “The unprecedented expansion will help make renewables reliable, filling in holes caused by intermittent supply and generator outages.

“It will enable greater energy efficiency and help stabilise electricity supply into the future,” he said – adding that this would ultimately mean cheaper power prices.

He said successive governments at all levels had failed to put in place the needed storage to ensure reliable supply.

“We are making energy storage infrastructure a critical priority to ensure better integration of wind and solar into the energy market and more efficient use of conventional power.”

Turnbull said an “all-of-the-above” approach, including hydro, solar, coal and gas, was critical to future energy supplies.

Snowy Hydro already provided back-up energy to NSW and Victoria and could extend to South Australia when expanded, he said. The expansion would have no impact on the supply of irrigation water to NSW, South Australia and Queensland.

The feasibility study for the expansion is expected to be completed before the end of this year, with construction starting soon after, he said.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/kwxda-68af74?from=yiiadmin

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

Grand Canyon Development Plan Sparks Dispute


TIME

As morning light painted the far-reaching buttes of the Grand Canyon gold, Renae Yellowhorse stood at the edge of the canyon’s rim, looked out toward where the rivers met below her, and smiled.

“It is my church, it is where I say my prayers. It is where I give my offerings. It’s where I commune with the holy ones, the gods that walk along the canyon,” said Yellowhorse, a member of the Navajo Nation.

This place, called “the confluence,” is where the Colorado River meets the Little Colorado River on the canyon’s east side. According to the Navajo creation story, the confluence is where their people first emerged.

And now this Navajo-owned land is at the center of an ugly land-use dispute…

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

View original post

Palau: Marine Sanctuary and Fishing Banned


The link below is to an article reporting on a plan by Palau to ban commercial fishing and to create a massive marine sanctuary.

For more visit:
http://www.treehugger.com/ocean-conservation/palau-ban-commercial-fishing-and-become-marine-sanctuary-roughly-size-france.html