Once again, the Senate is poised this week to decide the future policy course of the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin. The critical decision for senators is whether or not to accede to the recommendation by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority that environmental flows in the Darling Rivers’ catchments be cut by seventy billion litres a year. The Greens are opposed and Labor is wavering while seeking a deal on the promise of delivering four hundred and fifty billion litres to the River Murray. The Darling River could once again be the poor sibling of the Murray-Darling family.
Compared to the Murray, the Darling River has less water, less sophisticated modelling and less research and, as a consequence, less well developed evidence based policy. The Darling Rivers and its tributaries like the Macquarie and Gwydir Rivers, were developed after about the nineteen seventies. Widespread large privately owned storages allowed the irrigation community to divert river water into their dams, essentially having the same effect on the river as large government-built dams on the rivers. Previously, I have described widespread degradation across the Murray-Darling Basin and the current implementation challenges for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
The press release from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority in the last week argues that the cut to the Darling River’s environmental flows was based ‘on the best available science and evidence’, with modelling and data that ‘stood up to the scrutiny of independent peer review’. Peer review can be convenient. In science and engineering, it describes when an editor of a peer-reviewed journal sends submitted work to independent anonymous reviewers. This anonymity provides frank and fearless advice to the editor on the quality of the work. Governments often have a different definition. They decide where to send the work for review and they pay for it. There is a truism in the world of environmental consultancy – you don’t pay someone to sink your view of the world. There is little independence and, apart from some tinkering, overall conclusions rarely change. Whichever way you look at it, it is a poor imitation of peer review.
In my submission to the Senate Inquiry into the Darling River recommendations last year, I criticised the cut to environmental flows in three major areas: inadequate consideration of published peer reviewed science, inadequate achievement of river environmental indicators, insensitivity of hydrological modelling to detecting environmental impacts and inadequate attention to statutory drivers of the Basin Plan. There was not even a list of all relevant science done in the Darling River, let alone assessment of how new and best available science contributed necessary evidence. Only 44% of the Murray-Darling Basin’s own environmental streamflow indicators would be achieved, down from 49% under the Basin Plan. Hydrological modelling, on which the recommendation was made, inadequately detects environmental impacts to floodplains, the most affected environments. This is largely because river gauges are only in the main channel of the river and flows are not adequately linked in models to flooding. There was also little transparency around the modelling used, including withholding of the final model until November 2017, almost a year after community consultation.
Finally, there was little acknowledgement on the impacts on the two principal drivers of the Water Act 2007 underpinning the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which allowed the Australian Government to ‘take over’ running the rivers – internationally important wetlands and migratory shorebirds. This is despite the Australian Government formally notifying the international community that human impacts were significantly changing two wetlands in the Darling, the Macquarie Marshes and the Gwydir wetlands, two of only three in Australia. And, there was good evidence for migratory shorebirds declining as a result of river development. Astoundingly, the Authority’s review even found that there was too much environmental water going to the Macquarie Marshes, contradicting the best available science. There is little evidence that the best available science and evidence informed the recommendation.
Instead, the Authority played the economic trump card, supported by then Water Minister Barnaby Joyce, emphasising the significant impacts on irrigation communities, despite other rural communities continuing to pay the price. Farmers in Macquarie Marshes and on the Culgoa River have told their poignant stories of how they continue to be sold down the river as their water is taken from them. The Authority even commissioned a study which identified significant downstream impacts on these farmers but oddly its draft watermark probably realistically reflects its impact on the recommendation. There was also an outcry from Traditional Owners who had expressed considerable concern about the health of the river in another commissioned report. At the same time, Broken Hill continues to run out of water with declining flows down the Darling River, forcing Governments to build a $467 million pipeline which continues to attract criticism. These aspects were largely absent from the economic analyses.
This is all against a background of multiple inquiries focusing on rivers of the northern Murray-Darling Basin, including individuals referred to the Independent Commission against Corruption, after the Four Corners program, which identified serious flaws in water management. In the last week, the Australia Institute identified changing estimates on how the recommendation on flows from the Darling would affect South Australia. Also, a draft letter from the Environmental Water Holder warned that the Australian Government’s statutory obligations to manage environmental water were highly vulnerable to inadequate State water policy. Victoria and New South Wales are leading the charge primarily favouring irrigation communities instead of their rivers and other communities who depend on them. The independent review of the Basin Plan by the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists was also damming in its critique. Similarly, in the Murray-Darling Basin Declaration, I, along with eleven other scientists and economists, called to stop further subsidies for irrigation infrastructure, an independent audit on water recovery and establishment of an independent scientific advisory body to oversight implementation.
These issues are not only critical for the prescient decision by the Senate on environmental flows in the Darling but also in relation to how the Australian Government and the States deliver on a Basin Plan. This decision, based on the recommendation from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, will undermine the Basin Plan. The Basin Plan can deliver a healthy working river system but it demands strong adherence to adequate policy and management, under constant attack from vested interests. The Darling River deserves to be on the same footing as its sibling the Murray.
Richard Kinsford is Professor of Environmental Science,
Director of Centre for Ecosystem Science,
School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences,
at University of NSW