We are often told by some politicians and irrigation lobbyists not to worry about our rivers – Australia is a land of droughts and flooding rains – and ever it was thus. After all, Murray-Darling rivers surely fixed themselves when the 2010 and 2011 floods broke the seven year Millennium Drought. This tired old talking point is wrong – unequivocally demonstrated by reductions in river flows and thousands of hectares of dead river red gums. Critics of environmental flows for rivers argue that the so-called poor state of the rivers is nothing more than a figment of the imagination of the disconnected environmental fringe, mostly in our cities and scientists intent on growing their empires.
The parallels with the climate debate are all too clear. At a pub in the irrigation town of Shepparton in Victoria, Water and Agriculture Minister Joyce pointedly commented after the July ABC Four Corners program: “We’ve taken water, put it back into agriculture, so we can look after you and make sure we don’t have the greenies running the show”. In reality, much of the concern about the state of the Basin’s rivers is not coming from the cities –people living on the rivers are in despair. They voiced their horror at alleged stealing of water, poor management of environmental water and perverse subsidies, exposed by ABC Four Corners in July.
These are the silent majority of the rivers: the Traditional Owners, fishers, townspeople, tourism operators, environmentalists and graziers. Plenty of city dwellers also care deeply about the Basin’s rivers. The equation is pretty simple – once all the water in Murray-Darling Basin rivers was environmental flow, inundating floodplains, flowing out to sea, washing the salt away and filling up groundwater aquifers.
The rivers sustained incredibly diverse ecosystems, maintaining countless millions of other organisms, from microscopic crustaceans such as ostracods through to mighty, centuries old river red gums. These arteries of water across our dry continent also delivered essential ecosystem services, such as clean water. Bad water quality spells trouble. For example, in 2015, children from a Pooncarrie family on the Darling River were hospitalised with an antibiotic resistant staph infection, when the water stopped coming down the river. Building dams and diverting river water to irrigation and towns took half the life out of the rivers.
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan of 2011 was supposed to fix all this, delivering the elusive balance between a healthy river environment and livelihoods of irrigators. The policy decisions were made. The water shares divided. No one was happy and so surely it must have been a good political decision. Six years later there is a mess, reflected in five independent inquiries, mainly centred on NSW. The Premier of South Australia has called for a Royal Commission while others demand a judicial inquiry.
The devil was always going to be in the detail. The States had to implement the Basin plan but some were clearly luke warm. Gavin Hanlon, the most senior water bureaucrat in NSW and now subject to an ICAC inquiry, was blunt on ABC Four Corners while on a teleconference to irrigators, describing the NSW Government’s Plan B for the Basin: “…we have had detailed legal advice on what walking away means”. The substance of this positioning is all too apparent: water is pouring out of the leaky policy bucket from poor compliance, inadequate protection of environmental flows and a poor appetite to achieve the agreed target of environmental flows. The problems run deep and long in the government water agency, stripped by restructures of much of its expertise. Ken Matthews, past CEO of the National Water Commission, produced a scathing independent report to the NSW Government, identifying poor transparency and failed compliance and enforcement, particularly in the Barwon-Darling. The NSW Ombudsman followed up hard, demonstrating how successive governments had swept the problem under the carpet by ignoring the office’s 2009, 2012 and 2013 reports. Astoundingly, the Ombudsman pointed out that there were more than ten times the number of compliance staff patrolling the centre of Sydney compared to the twelve compliance officers enforcing water use from NSW rivers. Encouragingly, the NSW Government has belatedly moved to establish an independent regulator for water.
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) is also responsible for auditing and approving water plans and ensuring Basin plan implementation. Former policy director of the MDBA, Maryanne Slattery, recently claimed that “real people on the ground” were ignored when senior executives of the Authority shut down her compliance project identifying unauthorised water diversions from the Barwon-Darling, arguing that it would “upset” NSW. The Authority has also just recommended to the Australian Parliament that environmental flows to the Darling River be reduced by seventy billion litres, based on simplistic analyses of economic, social and environmental costs and benefits.
Taxpayers are increasingly asking legitimate questions about the thirteen billion dollars spent to fix the rivers and the Basin plan. Murray-Darling Basin rivers can be restored if State and National Governments close the policy holes, including radically improving compliance, dealing with floodplain harvesting, removing perverse subsidies which increase ability to take water and respecting the original target for environmental flows, set in 2011. The floods are shorter and river droughts are longer but implementation of the Basin plan can improve river health. We need to respect the commitment of Australians and their governments to this magnificent river system and restoring its extraordinary cultural and environmental values, as well as the things it is does for us for free, like delivering clean water.
Professor Richard Kingsford is the Director for the Centre for Ecosystem Science at UNSW, Sydney. He is an ecologist working on Australian rivers and wetlands, primarily in the Murray-Darling and Lake Eyre Basins. His research has influenced the policy and management, particularly in relation to environmental flows and protecting rivers. He has spent many years on different committees in the Lake Eyre and Murray-Darling Basin.