Back to All News

NSW and the revised Murray Darling Basin plan

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 22 Aug 2012

Senator Rhiannon spoke in the Senate today, in an extended ‘Matter of Public Importance’ speech, about NSW’s role in the challenge of restoring the Murray Darling Basin

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (13:14): The revised Murray-Darling Basin Plan released earlier this month cannot deliver a healthy future for the Murray-Darling Basin's rivers in New South Wales. The plan still falls short of ensuring the long-term survival of the rivers for the communities, industries and ecosystems that depend on it. At least $9 billion of public money is earmarked for the Murray-Darling. We must get this right.

For years now the demise of the Murray-Darling as a healthy river basin has caused a great sense of loss and sadness for many people in New South Wales, especially in times of prolonged drought. But there are signs of hope too. People see opportunities for renewal: economic diversification, increased research into river health, more resilient farming communities, enhanced food security and tourism opportunities. These hopes all rest on restoring a healthy working river system.

The Greens are working hard with community and environmental groups to achieve a sustainable outcome. The Greens water spokesperson, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, has been a leading voice in her home state of South Australia for the campaign to restore the mouth of the Murray River and to increase environmental flows to sustainable levels in the upland states. At its heart, the Basin Plan needs to overcome the past problems of overallocation or overuse in New South Wales. The Greens position has been consistently based on the best available science, to return a minimum of 4,000 gigalitres of environmental flows to the river system. Our priority must be to meet the overarching environmental objectives of restoring to full health the ecosystem functions of the rivers so that they can continue to thrive and support economic activity in the future. The challenge is made greater by the need to adapt to climate change, extreme weather events and the increasing likelihood of drought.

New South Wales is the largest upstream user in the Murray-Darling Basin. As such, it has a big responsibility to the entire river system and to the downstream water users. But things are not going well in New South Wales, where successive governments have been putting the brakes on water reform. Their recent actions can only be described as being in bad faith.

The New South Wales government currently backs a 2,100 gigalitre target, half of what the science has identified is needed. Inappropriate and inefficient water use by irrigators, industry and miners has placed unsustainable demands on rivers and groundwater in western New South Wales. The effects of drought and climate change, coupled with outdated and unsustainable water management practices, have pushed rivers to the limit, threatening the viability of agriculture and rural communities.

New South Wales needs to reform water allocations urgently. We must bring them in line with the best available science if we are to have any hope of securing the long-term health of rivers and their ecosystems to secure water supplies for smaller farms, towns and communities and to strengthen local economies.

Far from advancing these reforms, the New South Wales government is going backwards. Since coming to office in 2011 the New South Wales coalition government has done everything in its power to delay any significant change and to minimise the water volumes returned to the environment. The government's latest claim to recover just three per cent of water over 10 years is a woefully inadequate response to the task at hand.

This year the New South Wales government slashed the budget of the New South Wales Office of Water, cutting $16 million from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and with a further $8.9 million cut foreshadowed for the following two years. New South Wales coalition primary industries minister, Katrina Hodgkinson, wrote to the water minister, Mr Tony Burke, justifying the cuts as necessary to reduce the costs of water management, conceding that it would reduce water management services. The move rightly angered people in South Australia, who depend on New South Wales to do its share.

New South Wales irrigators have been vocal opponents of extra environmental flows being returned, claiming that it will devastate upstream towns along the Murray and Darling rivers which depend on irrigation for their livelihoods. The Greens are not without some sympathy for the uncertainty of their future. We all want the best outcome for future generations who will depend on the river. But the primary challenge is to find an environmentally sustainable outcome for the entire Basin. We need to balance the environmental and consumptive interests. The Greens remain convinced by the best available science that at least 4,000 gigalitres of water must be returned to the river system if there is to be a viable future for everyone who relies on it.

The Basin Plan would put the needs of the rivers first, and then let governments work with rural communities to adjust to the changes and to develop resilience, rather than try to preserve the status quo. Small agricultural irrigators will need financial assistance, and there will need to be industry reform to make the transition to a viable future with less water.

The real story is that with the correct strategy in place enormous benefits—environmental, economic and social—will be gained from restoring rivers to full health. The CSIRO recently estimated that returning 2,800 gigalitres to the Basin, which will not deliver the outcomes we need, would bring in between $3 billion and $8 billion. Further, it is estimated that the basin's 16 internationally significant wetlands contribute $2.1 billion to the nation each year.

Irrigator groups have claimed that 15,000 jobs will be lost across the Basin under the plan. But economic modelling released by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority last year showed that between 900 and 1,600 jobs across the Basin would be under threat by 2019. The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists have estimated that, at worst, job losses could be 200 per year, and draws on data which shows that 13,000 new jobs are currently being created each year across the Basin.

In June this year Minister Burke came under heavy criticism from the Auditor-General over $650 million awarded to private New South Wales irrigators from the federal government's $5.8 billion private infrastructure operators program—a war chest to increase water efficiency in rural Australia. The Auditor-General found that none of the project proposals had demonstrated how they met the program's economic, social or environmental criteria for improving the health of the Murray-Darling Basin. Baseline water levels were not established, and the projects did not identify the amount of water savings returned for the investment. These New South Wales irrigators received $650 million for water savings infrastructure where there is no way of showing what benefit it will have.

It is up to five times more costly to fund infrastructure projects than it is to buy back water.

It is also inequitable to give federal funding to New South Wales irrigators when irrigators in South Australia cannot access that money as they have already implemented water efficiency measures. New South Wales has been a major part of the problem, but instead of being part of the solution the big irrigators have turned an ecological crisis of their own making into a funding opportunity.

A more effective way to return environmental water to the Murray-Darling system in New South Wales is to buy it back. The Productivity Commission thought so too in 2010 when it reported on market mechanisms that the Australian government could use to diversify its water purchasing program. It found:

Rather than having a $5.8 billion program focused predominantly on infrastructure upgrades, it would have been more effective and efficient to use the sustainable diversion limits from the Basin Plan to determine the targets for reallocation in each catchment, use a buyback program as the sole means of easing the transition to those targets, (and) consider establishing a much smaller program to assist irrigators and related communities adjust to a future with less water, through the most effective means available, not just subsidies for irrigation infrastructure.

So did the economic consultants that prepared a report released in June by the Department of Water Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, who came to a similar conclusion. This was a survey of water entitlement sellers under the Restoring the Balance in the Murray-Darling Basin program. The report concluded:

Many irrigators, irrigation communities and other stakeholders are apprehensive about the Restoring the Balance program and the impact it may have on the livelihoods of communities … These perceptions contrast with the findings of this study and several other recent studies showing that water entitlement trading has delivered benefits to the Basin irrigators and irrigation communities, and that irrigation communities are better off with water trading than they would be without it.

This report also concluded that 'almost 80% of irrigators surveyed said that selling water to the Commonwealth was a positive decision'.

The state governments are due to respond very shortly to the revised Basin Plan. If the New South Wales government runs true to form, they will fail to support any increased environmental returns to the Murray-Darling, with dire consequences for the New South Wales river systems.

This week the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists criticised the revised Basin Plan. They maintain it should be withdrawn because it does not provide enough information to make an informed decision on the future of the river system. They are critical of the plan's ongoing failure to identify the volume of water needed for a healthy working river to cope with long dry periods and account for climate change. It still massively increases groundwater allocations by 1,700 gigalitres above current levels and allows further subsidy of the irrigation industry.

Under the revised Basin Plan, water buybacks have been deprioritised in favour of funding irrigation infrastructure works even though infrastructure is at least four times more expensive than purchasing water. The plan's new adjustment mechanism will lock in a bad environmental outcome. It will divert money from recovering water for the environment to consumptive uses by irrigators. The basic computer modelling creates a benchmark or target for flows for major sites located across the entire Basin to predict the outcome of the plan based on the current scenario of 2,750 gigalitres. These benchmarks are environmental outcomes based on ecological targets set by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority such as fish and bird breeding and the health of wetlands.

The model starts at an inadequate baseline. Then the new adjustment mechanism allows trade-offs to take place within the Basin system. This could result in some sites getting worse outcomes, balanced by other sites gaining better outcomes. There is no incentive to improve the overall outcome for the entire Basin, only the requirement that it does not get worse.

It is estimated that one quarter of these environmental outcomes or targets will not be met under the 2,750-gigalitre model. The northern Basin in the New South Wales fares particularly poorly. There are some small improvements, but sites such as the Ramsar listed Narran Lakes, the Lower Macintyre River and the Barwon-Darling River look set to fail to meet most or all of their ecological targets. There will not be sufficient environmental improvements for targets such as native fishes, riparian forests, river-floodplain connectivity, nutrient cycling, in-stream habitat, billabongs, wetlands, woodlands and nesting waterbirds. The current Basin Plan fails the people and environment of Northern New South Wales.

Another big factor in New South Wales is that groundwater extraction is still too high at 1,700 gigalitres. The initial groundwater figures were modest but had reached 2,600 gigalitres in the draft report released last year. Much of that groundwater is in New South Wales and is hydraulically connected to river systems. The Wentworth Group argued that no scientific reason was given for increased groundwater extractions. The mining industry is a big thirsty groundwater user. I confirmed at estimates that the New South Wales Office of Water had written to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority trying to secure water requirements for the mining industry. Mining operations in New South Wales have already caused extensive and irreversible damage to aquifers and rivers. Just as we are asking agricultural industries to adapt to less water, so too should we restrict the mining industry's access to water, not make exceptions without any scientific basis.

Another problem with the revised plan is that we will need to find more money, above the existing $9 billion, in order to recover more water beyond 2,750 gigalitres. As far as I know, water minister Mr Burke has not run the computer modelling at 4,000 gigalitres to see the outcomes of restoring fuller flows to the Basin. This is despite repeated requests from independent scientists, the CSIRO and environment groups. Without this, we cannot know what ecological targets could be achieved with a scientifically based 4,000-gigalitre per year reduction. Nor do we know the seasonal impacts. It has been a major oversight in the process given that what we do know is that 2,750 gigalitres grossly underestimates the environment water requirements needed to protect and restore water-dependent ecosystems.

Soon Minister Burke will ask the federal government to support this draft plan. If it passes, it will be in place until 2030 with a price tag upward of $9 billion. The Greens will continue to argue that a 4,000-gigalitre reduction is the very least required if we are to save the Murray-Darling. The onus rests with the federal government to follow the best available science and give leadership to the states on the environmental and economic reforms required to pull this off. (Time expired)

Back to All News