Up until the passing of the Water Act (2007), the management of the Murray Darling Basin was regarded internationally as one of the best examples in the world of a cooperative approach to water management. At the core of this success was the Murray Darling Basin Commission, a collective of federal and state governments, who worked through the issues and agreed on a Cap to water extraction, salinity management strategies, and environmental restoration projects. Those in the know in Australia could see many failures and problems with the Commission despite its obvious successes. It was slow and ponderous, and it responded too slowly and poorly to underlying over-allocation which was exacerbated by the drought in the 2000’s.
Partly in response to this frustration at the slow pace of reform, the Water Act was passed by Parliament in 2007. Malcolm Turnbull was the Minister who sponsored the legislation in the Howard government. In his defence of the Basin Plan, he says “It is common ground that there has been a massive overallocation of water in the Murray Darling Basin. Much of this was done mindlessly and without any consideration of the environmental consequences. This problem has been recognised for well over a decade”.
The Act required the establishment of an independent Murray Darling Basin Authority who would prepare a Plan for “the use and management of the Basin water resources in a way that optimises economic, social and environmental outcomes”.
The Basin Plan should have been a definitive statement on the future of water management in the Murray Darling Basin. The Act was written by the Liberal Government and is being implemented by a Labor Government. The Greens were (and are) supportive of sustainable levels of water allocations along the River.
It seemed like a thrilling moment. The Murray Darling Basin Authority would by-pass politics and state recalcitrance, and set a new and sustainable limit for water extraction from the River.
A Guide to the Basin Plan was released in 2010. The Guide proposed cuts to water extraction limits of 3,000 – 4,000 GL, and it received a hostile reception from irrigation communities and others. The document was revised based on meetings with stakeholders, and more scientific studies, and a Draft Basin Plan was released in 2011 proposing reductions of 2,750 GL in surface water extractions and approving an increase in groundwater extractions of about the same quantum. This new document has very few friends indeed. It is hard to find a stakeholder group who wants the Plan in its current format. The States have provided luke-warm support or express outright hostility to the Plan (SA, Vic, NSW). Farmer groups are highly concerned about what the reductions in extractions will mean for local economies. Conservation groups are suspicious that the Plan has been ‘watered down’ (pun intended) for political purposes . Scientists are unhappy about the transparency and credibility of the science that has underpinned the plan (Wentworth group, Kingsford, Simmons).
The process of developing the Basin Plan has created deep divisions, and smashed a hard fought for partnership that had lasted for over a decade between farmers and conservationists. Scientists who had been pleading for extra water for the River are highly critical of a Plan that proposes the return of a massive 2,750 GL to the environment (although increases groundwater extraction limits by about the same amount). Concerns by all parties have been expressed about how the average diversions will work under extreme conditions, and suggest that there may be better ways of setting diversion limits which are more adaptable to climate variability.
How did we get from thrilling to hostile so fast?
In my view, the MDBA jumped from “optimises economic, social and environmental outcomes” to a sustainable diversion limit number too fast, without first getting agreement on what optimal economic, social and environmental outcomes are wanted. The result is that the Plan lacks moral authority. More science will not fix this problem, although more science is undoubtably required. An open and honest discussion about the aspirations of the Australian community for the Basin is needed. This cannot and should not be rushed. In reality, we have until at least 2019 to have this conversation, which is when the Basin Plan will come into full effect.
While not certain, it seems likely the Draft Basin Plan will be approved by Parliament with a promise to modify it based on more discussion, debate and scientific studies. But future modifications will need to be undertaken based on a fundamentally different approach to the one the MDBA has taken to date. It needs to try and gain an agreement on the underlying aspirations of the Plan. An open review is required on the scientific advice that has been used to inform the setting of sustainable diversion limits. A important conversation has been missed entirely around how the efficiency of both environmental and agricultural irrigation could be improved. There are opportunities to manage flows, the operations of the large lakes and estuary and wetland flooding regimes to deliver superior environmental outcomes. There are opportunities in innovation, infrastructure investment and education that would make our irrigated industries more efficiency and profitable. We have after all, $10 billion to implement the new Basin Plan – equivalent to $500,000 per irrigator. Surely we can do something smart, and better, with that sort of investment.
These are the discussions we could be having and they would bring back the stakeholders into a conversation that would hopefully heal the distressing rifts that have been created amongst those who care for and rely on the rivers of the MDB. The Basin Plan should be a positive affirmation of the will of the people of Australia, not an in-house document prepared by government for government, with scant regard for the collective intelligence and aspirations of the people. If done well, the re-engagement of people in the development of the Plan will improve the final outcome, and ensure the Plan endures.
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority is undertaking a formal consultation process on the proposed Basin Plan from 28 November 2011 to 16 April 2012.