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CoAG & Water in 2004 « Previous | |Next »
June 28, 2004

At last Friday's CoAG meeting the Basin states and the Commonwealth signed up to two agreements: one to establish a national water initiative, the other to recover water for environmental flows for the Murray-Darling river system. These agreements have been heralded as a historic step towards a sustainable water future for the Murray-Darling Basin and Australia.

Are they? We have good reason to be sceptical.

Peter Cullen is a good guide on this complex issue of water reform. On the latter agreement, the Living Murray Agreement, Cullen says:

"The first of the agreements repeated all the great pledges they made last year to commit $500million and to return 500 gigalitres of water to the Murray River in its first stage of restoration. This was an agreement between the lower basin states NSW, Vic and South Australia and only concerned recovery of water to rehabilitate the Murray. There was not much new in this, and progress has been glacial."

Very true. Not much actually happened here. It was old news being recycled to make the states look good---to be seen doing something. Cullen says:

"What has been agreed is that all proposals (to clawback over-allocated water resources) will be judged by the Murray Darling Basin Ministerial Council and have to be agreed as eligible measures if they are to be funded from the $500million pool. The deal pledges to set targets for water recovery. Much of this was agreed last year, and not much water has been delivered to the Murray. Environmentalists and those living along the lower sections of the river are certainly impatient with the rate of progress. They need to keep expressing their concern to governments, otherwise political attention will move on to some other issue."

Nor was any extra money actually put on the table to recover water. Little by way ofactual proposals to recover the promised 500 gigalitres of environmental flows was put on the table. Apart from Victoria, the states are doing the barest minimium in the longest possible time. The lowest common denominator thinking still rules; even in SA, the state make the loudest noises about the pressing need to save the Murray.

It was better news on the other agreement, the National Water Initiative, signed by all states other than Western Australia and Tasmania. This agreement lays out the sorts of principles that need to guide water management in the 21st century, and repeats some of the ideas developed in the Murray arguments. Cullen says that this involves some complex matters, which he outlines as follows:

"It seeks to give farmers security for their water rights so they can invest in some certainty. It wants to provide legally secure water for the environment and lay out principles as to how it should be recovered, managed and reported.

It does agree that water can be recovered through a variety of means, including purchase on the market by a tender, infrastructure improvements or regulation, and agrees that whatever means are used they must be cost effective. It seeks to establish a nationally consistent water market so water can move to its best uses. It also met farmers' concerns about sharing risks of less water in the future due to improved knowledge and government policies.

This agreement also commits states to a transparent water planning framework and provides a commitment to return all over allocated river and groundwater systems to sustainable levels of extraction. It recognises the connection between groundwater and surface water in many systems. And it acknowledges indigenous interests in water and seeks to engage them in water planning.

The deal establishes a National Water Commission, funded solely by the Australian Government to review states' progress under COAG agreements and to provide advice to COAG on water issues. This is an important step to developing an overdue national water strategy. As a federal body, it will not be held hostage to the lowest common denominator thinking that drives most of the ministerial councils we have in Australia."

That is a significant step forward. However, the governments have only committed to the broad principles. Yet very little has been achieved in terms of of recovering water for the Murray. Not a drop of new water seems to have been delivered as yet, and it is not clear when any will be.

We are still talking about recovering the water. We are not actually delivering it. Nor are we providing the resources to do so.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 3:01 PM | | Comments (0)