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Returning water to the River Murray « Previous | |Next »
November 14, 2003

Murraymouth3.jpgThe Murray-Darling Ministerial Council meets today to consider ways to improve the health of the River Murray. It is expected to adopt a 5 year river plan to return water to the troubled river.

Judging from the media reports a targeted approach will be adopted.

The focus of the plan is on improving the 4 iconic sites of the Barmah, Koondrook-Perricoota & Gumnbower forests near Echuca, the Chowilla floodplain near Renmark, and the Coorong near the Murray Mouth.

The media reports say the plan:

"....chooses specific forests and wetlands to receive extra water rather than simply proposing extra flows for the whole river, in a change of thinking recommended by the Murray Darling Basin Commission...The plan will devote 500 gigalitres a year... to the four areas, averaged over five years. It is believed the plan revolves around water savings of up to 300 gigalitres a year from "engineering" water use - by covering irrigation channels to reduce evaporation and offering farmers incentives to change their irrigation patterns, among other approaches."

The short term plan is seen as a necessary first step to protecting these iconic sites. The plan will allocate 180 gigalitres to the Murray Mouth annually, and 160 gigalitres to the highly degraded Chowilla floodplain. Hence we may have a process of working on what these iconic sites need to ensure their ecological health. Though the small amount of water will not keep the Murray Mouth open, nor save the Chowilla-floodplain, water is set to be returned to the Murray River for the first time in more than 100 years.

The negative is also important. To flush out the now hypersaline Coorong estuary and keep the mouth open would require at least the full 500 gigalitres, leaving nothing for other sites. There is a long way to go, even though the return of water to the river is historically significant.

This environmental flows strategy is contested by irrigators. Writing in the Australian Financial Review (subscription required, 13, 11, 03 0.78) John Cox continues to beat the anti-reform drum of the "simplistic green lobbying which advocates that environmental outcomes in rivers like the Murray can be improved by increased river flows." Cox says:

"The present debate on the future of the River Murray has been conducted solely in terms of environmental outcomes and the fact that Australians give a 60 per cent weighting to economic outcomes in regional communities [15% each to social and health outcomes and 10% to the environment] along the River Muray does not seem to be relevant to the debate and to the decisions being made."

Cox argues that the environmental scientific approach is simplistic because its strategy of increased environmental flows ignores the economic and political effects of buyback. Cox says:

" ...a reduction in water for irrigation will result in a significiant loss in regional income and have serious financial, social and psychological effects on these [regional] communities."

Cox's intervention appears to be backed Lee Benson's Science Behind the Living Murray report (not online), which was done for Murray Irrigation Ltd in NSW.

The small amount of water to be allocated (ie the 500 gialitres) will not keep the Murray Mouth open, or save the Chowilla-floodplain and the ecology of the river between the iconic sites. Much more water is needed to save these. As The Age recognizes that "more water will eventually need to flow down the whole length of the Murray and not just at environmentally sensitive sites." A third of what needed has been allocated. The next step is for the Federal Government to make a long-term commitment to restoring flows to the whole river when it meets again with the states in April.
As expected the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council approved the Federal Government's 500-gigalitre "first step" flows to six iconic river assets, with the Hattah Lakes in Victoria's north-west being added to the list of sites to get the extra water.

As expected Federal Government ministers assured farmers that most of the 500 gigalitres (billion litres) promised for the Murray yesterday would most of the water will not be bought from farmers and that there will be no adverse social or economic impacts on river communities.

As expected the Miinsterial Council agreed to invest in water saving techniques and engineering works to save substantial amounts of water, rather than buy back water allocations on the market and so reduce the over allocation of water licences by the basin state governments.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 1:15 PM | | Comments (0)