Adjournment speech, Tuesday 22 November 2011
On another matter: we have known for many years that the Murray-Darling Basin is slowly dying. This massive water catchment covers most of New South Wales. The health of this river system is linked with our economy and environmental wellbeing. In 2008 a leaked scientific report to the government warned that part of the river system, particularly the Lower Lakes, was on its last legs and that parts of the basin were becoming so acidic that water was capable of burning human flesh. In 2009 the Daily Telegraph ran a story about how higher temperatures and a lack of constant flow in the Murray River is choking thousands of native fish, including some cod which are almost 100 years old, due to lack of oxygen in southern tributaries of the river. Without sufficient water, the basin's ecosystems will continue to deteriorate as will the viability of farming, cities and towns. Increasing challenges from climate change mean that we have to act now with a national plan that shows vision and leadership.
Recently, documents obtained by Friends of the Earth brought to light that the New South Wales government privately pressed the independent Murray-Darling Basin Authority to release more groundwater for the mining industry in its draft Basin Plan. This is outrageous. It is outrageous to do this to this catchment area but particularly at a time when the authority is coming to its own findings. Successive New South Wales governments have left a terrible legacy from placing mining interests ahead of those of communities and the natural environment. These short-sighted actions have resulted in a tragic loss of high conservation woodlands, forests and wetlands in New South Wales, reduced biodiversity, damage to pristine water catchments, rivers and aquifers and increased threats to prime agricultural lands. They have also ignored the rights and wishes of the traditional Indigenous owners on mining lands and have destroyed sacred Aboriginal heritage sites.
My colleagues in the New South Wales Greens are campaigning for a moratorium on coal seam gas and for the state New South Wales government to be tougher on coalmining applications in order to consider the long-term impact of coalmining on agricultural land and water. The impact of mining expansion in the Murray-Darling Basin, if allowed to proceed, would have irreversible consequences.
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority is set to release its Basin Plan on 28 November. Four Corners called it 'the largest water reform plan in the nation's history'. Weekend news reports indicate that the Basin Plan has been leaked to several media outlets. It has been reported that the amount of water set aside to boost the health of the basin could be slashed by hundreds of gigalitres and that water quality and salinity targets have been diluted. These reports are causing much anxiety among many in New South Wales.
Over three million Australians depend on the basin for their drinking water. It contains over 40 per cent of all Australian farms, it is our most important agricultural region producing one-third of Australia's food supply and it supports over a third of Australia's total gross value of agricultural production. According to the Inland Rivers Network, the Murray-Darling Basin is reaching crisis point. Over extraction has dramatically reduced river flow volumes. Thirty major dams can harvest whole floods and over 4,000 weirs clutter its rivers, raising salinity levels, reducing fish breeding, shrinking wetland areas and increasing weed invasion. Native fish species, including silver perch, Macquarie perch, fresh water catfish and southern pigmy perch have disappeared from many rivers. Water birds, which rely on floods to breed, have been lost from many wetlands as water is extracted upstream for irrigation. Many environmentalists say that the government must commit to buying back 7,600 gigalitres of water to return to the river system to restore its future health. The draft Murray-Darling Basin guide, released last year, proposed returning 4,000 gigalitres to the Murray-Darling Basin. The recently leaked report indicated that the target will only be 2,800 gigalitres. That is simply not a sustainable limit. As the Greens water spokesperson, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, has said, the best reviewed science says that only a minimum of 4,000 gigalitres will put the river system on a sustainable footing by flushing salt out of the river and keeping the Murray mouth open.
The debate over the Murray-Darling Basin has been unjustly framed as being between environmental and human demands. But we know that the two cannot be mutually exclusive and that the long-term viability of the communities, agriculture, wider environment and economy all depend on this river ecosystem. If the river chokes, if the river mouth closes, if the flood plain is no longer inundated, the livelihoods of everyone living and working in the Murray-Darling Basin will be at risk. The Basin Plan must deliver tangible environmental outcomes, now and into the future. The federal government cannot afford to risk reduced flow targets merely because it is political difficult to get science based targets. This could well be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to overcome decades of environmental degradation and secure the future health of one of Australia's most significant natural areas.
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan has the potential to revitalise our rivers, wetlands and ecosystems and to ensure the long-term sustainability of regional and rural communities dependent on the Murray-Darling Basin. The Greens urge the government to show true leadership and to pave the way for a sustainable future for these rivers and for the future generations who will depend on them. This is an issue that the Greens at state, federal and local levels among the communities along this river and the water plain that it supports are watching most closely.