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governing the Murray-Darling Basin « Previous | |Next »
February 23, 2007

There is no doubt the Murray-Darling Basin needs to be run as one basin, by an authority empowered to make some very hard decisions. Howard is right on this. However, the decision to do that, and how to do that, may not be made at this Friday's meeting since Victoria is out on a limb.

In terms of the battle over federalism and water Victoria positions itself as squeeky clean--it's doing all the right things by the environment and the problems really do lie with the other states. Victoria says that it has been leading the nation on water reform since 1999, stopping the privatisation of water authorities, implementing hundreds of projects that are safeguarding Victoria's water supplies for the next 50 years, and meeting the objectives of the National Water Initiative. It's the other states that are dragging the chain on reform. This squeeky green image underlies Victoria's response to governing the Murray-Darling Basin.

The problem with Howard's takeover plan for the governance of the Murray-Darling Basin Steve Bracks says is that:

'it appears that this national reform effort is a scrapbook affair — a paper-thin improvisation cut and pasted outside normal departmental and cabinet channels.....With so little hard detail, all we have to go on is the Prime Minister's good word. Personally, I don't believe Victorians are ready to trust the Prime Minister with total control of our state's water security in northern Victoria. To do so would risk leaving farmers, communities, the environment and our rivers literally high and dry.

Bracks is right to be concerned about on the lack of detail on such an important issue. Most of the states were less than impressed, hence their proposal for a review after 5 years. Although the Commonwealth plans to address the over-allocation problem in the MDB head on” through two major programmes for water recovery (one based on infrastructure and efficiency and the other on buying entitlements and structural adjustment), the plan is light on detail and timelines or targets for dealing with overallocation and over-use.

Paul Sinclair, director of Environment Victoria's Healthy Rivers Campaign, says that four areas need to be addressed in terms of greater detail. There needs to be timelines for returning enough water to the Murray and Darling rivers to make them healthy; real water must be returned to the Murray, the Murray and Darling must be managed in terms of water and degraded catchments; money needs to be allocated to monitoring programs to make sure government investment is improving river health.

Victoria has proposes its own governance plan, which it says is much better than Howard's. The other states are not so convinced. So is Victoria as squeeky clean as it claims? Paul Sinclair lifts the veil:

In 2003 the Victorian Government's green paper on water reform identified the Goulburn, Campaspe, Loddon, Murray, Wimmera and Snowy rivers as rivers "likely to be stressed". A scientific assessment in 2004 found that zero per cent of the Murray as it flows through the Mallee was in good condition. The Loddon has 3 per cent in good condition, the Campaspe zero per cent, and the Goulburn 26 per cent. Seventy-six per cent of our freshwater fish species are considered to be at risk of being pushed to extinction. Meanwhile, the Victorian Government allows the Barmah wetlands, one of the Murray's iconic sites, to be grazed to dust by cattle. Victoria will be well positioned to claim Commonwealth funds to fix sick rivers.Victoria continues to refuse to buy back entitlements from irrigators. Victoria is spending up to $4000 for each megalitre saved by fixing leaks in irrigation channels, while the market price is $2000. So for every megalitre saved by fixing channels, two could have been bought on the market.

Victoria, like the other states, approaches water issues in terms of protecting its irrigators first. On the Victorian side of the Murray, farmers are getting 95 per cent of the water; on the NSW side most farmers have general security licences, and this year are getting zero allocations—not one drop. Those few farmers with higher security licences are getting 48 per cent. On the South Australian section of the Murray, farmers are getting 60 per cent of their allocations. Bracks is determined to defend the Victorian situation. Victoria's interests must come first.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 6:39 AM | | Comments (2)


Bracks seems to be right about the lack of detail in the Commonwealth proposal. Is there anything out there besides Howard's speech?

apart from the links in the post you could try this account from Environment Victoria.The details of the six point plan from the key environmental groups are here.

The states are a real problem. NSW is the main culprit in terms of overallocated water licences. For 15 years it has talked about clawing back licences. There has been much pain as irrigators have evere so slowly given up water for the environment, but there is still some way to go. This is why Iemma was the first, indeed the only, premier to sign up to Howard's plan and why he did so very quickly. As a Labor premier he prefers the Liberal Prime Minister to bear the pain he has been unwilling to cop himself.

NSW is unable to claw back the water from irrigators. NSW gains most from Howard's plan as it has a lot of uncovered irrigation channels and it regularly breaches the caps on water use introduced 12 years ago.

Queensland simply ignores the cap and keeps coming up with old fashioned engineering schemes to pump more water into the basin to foster development in its own state.