Damning royal commission report leaves no doubt that we all lose if the Murray-Darling Basin Plan fails


Jamie Pittock, Australian National University

In the wake of revelations of water theft, fish kills, and towns running out of water, the South Australian Royal Commission into the Murray-Darling Basin has reported that the Basin Plan must be strengthened if there is to be any hope of saving the river system, and the communities along it, from a bleak future.

Evidence uncovered by the Royal Commission showed systemic failures in the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. The damning report must trigger action by all governments and bodies involved in managing the basin.

The Basin Plan was adopted in 2012 to address overallocation of water to irrigated farming at the expense of the environment, river towns, Traditional Owners, and the pastoral and tourism industries.

The Commission has made 111 findings and 44 recommendations that accuse federal agencies of maladministration, and challenge key policies that were pursued in implementing the plan.




Read more:
Aboriginal voices are missing from the Murray-Darling Basin crisis


What did the report find?

The commission found that the Basin Plan breached federal water laws by applying a “triple bottom line” trade-off of environmental and socioeconomic values, rather than prioritising environmental sustainability and then optimising socio-economic outcomes.

I and my colleagues in the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists provided evidence to the commission from our independent assessment of the Basin Plan in 2017, which the commission’s findings reflect.

Contrary to current government practices, the Commission recommendations include:

  • prioritising environmental sustainability
  • basing the plan on transparent science
  • acquiring more water for the environment through direct purchase from farmers
  • meeting the water needs of the Basin’s 40 Indigenous nations
  • ensuring that state governments produce competent subsidiary plans and comply with agreements to remove constraints to inundating floodplain wetlands
  • addressing the impacts of climate change
  • improving monitoring and compliance of Basin Plan implementation.

Resilience in decline

The Murray-Darling Basin is not just a food bowl. It is a living ecosystem that depends on interconnected natural resources. It also underpins the livelihoods of 2.6 million people and agricultural production worth more than A$24 billion.

The continued health of the basin and its economy depends on a healthy river – which in turns means healthy water flows. Like much of Australia, the Murray-Darling Basin is subject to periods of “droughts and flooding rains”. But over the past century the extraction of water, especially for irrigation, has reduced river flows to a point at which the natural system can no longer recover from these extremes.

That lack of resilience is evidenced by the current Darling River fish kills. More broadly, overextraction risks the health of the entire basin, and its capacity to sustain productive regional economies for future generations.

From the perspective of the Wentworth Group, we support the commission’s main recommendations, including increasing pressure on recalcitrant state governments to responsibly deliver their elements of the plan, and to refocus on the health of the river.

We particularly support recommendations related to the use of the best available science in decision-making, including for managing declining water availability under a changing climate.

We welcome the recommendation to reassess the sustainable levels of water extraction so as to comply with the Commonwealth Water Act. These must be constructed with a primary focus on the environment.

In line with this, the 70 billion litre reduction in environmental water from the northern basin adopted by parliament in 2018 should be immediately repealed. So should the ban on direct buyback of water from farmers for the environment.

We also recognise that the Basin Plan’s water recovery target is insufficient to restore health to the environment and prevent further damage, and would welcome an increase in the target above 3,200 billion litres.




Read more:
A good plan to help Darling River fish recover exists, so let’s get on with it


South Australian Premier Steven Marshall has taken a welcome first step in calling for a Council of Australian Governments meeting to discuss the commission’s findings. Our governments need to avoid the temptation to legislate away the politically inconvenient failings exposed by the commission, and instead act constructively and implement its recommendations.

This is not only a challenge for the current conservative federal government. The Labor side of politics needs to address its legacy in establishing the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Basin Plan, as well as the Victorian government’s role in frustrating the plan’s implementation by failing to remove constraints to environmental water flows.

Now, more than ever, we need strong leadership. If the Murray-Darling Basin Plan fails, we all lose.The Conversation

Jamie Pittock, Professor, Fenner School of Environment & Society, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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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.