Will the Basin Plan save the Darling River?

Bev Smiles, President, Inland Rivers Network

The Murray Darling Basin Plan, gazetted in November 2012, has a budget of $13 billion to fund a new direction for water management and water sharing in one of the world’s largest river basins. It is the most expensive natural resource management project in the nation.

Explosive revelations on ABC Four Corners on 24 July (‘Pumped: who is benefitting from the billions spent on the Murray-Darling’) exposed that much of this public investment is going directly into the pockets of the agribusiness irrigation industry with the blessing of the NSW Coalition Government and deals done with National Party Water Ministers.

The Basin Plan aims to address the over-allocation of water used for irrigated agriculture. The millennium drought saw a drastic reduction in wetlands, River Red Gums, waterbirds and native fish populations. The Murray Mouth was closed for a prolonged period of time and salinity levels across the Basin were rising.

Water dependent ecosystems, weakened over a long period of lost natural flows, had less resilience during the prolonged drought.

The Murray Darling needs environmental flows protected

Water purchased with public money or saved through expensive infrastructure projects must stay in the rivers as additional flows to improve the environmental health of the system and to support downstream communities and Aboriginal cultural values.

The NSW Government has refused to protect water purchased and held by the Commonwealth Government. This water is being pumped for private gain.

The Basin Plan was adopted with bipartisan and State Government support to return 2,750 GL (gigalitres or billion litres) to the rivers towards improving system wide health.

Changes to the Sustainable Diversion Limit

The adopted Plan included an adjustment mechanism in the Southern Basin and a Northern Basin Review to finalise a Sustainable Diversion Limit (SDL) by the end of this year. We are now at a critical stage of decision-making on the final volume of water for environmental improvement.

The outcome of the Northern Basin Review, a political decision influenced by the irrigation industry, is to reduce flows back to the Darling River system by 70 GL (390 GL in current plan down to 320 GL in proposed amended plan).

Even worse, the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) is proposing to take up to 28 GL of existing environmental water from the Macquarie River and up to 22 GL from the Gwydir. This decision will seriously impact the Ramsar listed Macquarie Marshes and Gwydir Wetlands.

The final consideration of an SDL for the Southern Basin is based on a series of very expensive projects that have no known environmental outcomes.

The influence of the irrigation industry both on the MDBA, Federal and State Governments, and particularly the NSW Government, has been significant.

Water Buy Back is the best approach

The most efficient use of the Basin Plan funding, to achieve an increase in river flows, is to buy back water from willing sellers.

Lobbying by the irrigation industry with strong support of the National Party capped water buyback at 1,500 GL. The rest of the environmental water now must be recovered through very expensive infrastructure projects and on farm subsidies to improve efficient water use.

The current volume reclaimed for environmental use is approximately 1,753 GL. The NSW Government has failed to protect purchased environmental water from being pumped for irrigation. The entire process under the watch of National Party Ministers at the state and federal level has been a windfall gain for the irrigation industry.

Have your Say: Murray Darling Basin

While the Basin needs much more water returned, we now have to be vigilant to ensure that at least the 2,750 GL in the adopted Plan is protected.

NPA supports the general call for a full judicial review into water management in NSW and across the Basin.

Please add your voice to the Senate Inquiry into theft and use of environmental water in the Murray Darling. Make a small submission to help show that many people want a good outcome for our rivers, wetlands, native fish and waterbirds in the Murray Darling Basin.  Submissions close 28 September

Make a submission

More information

ABC News report, Liv Casben: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-06-05/murray-darling-basin-waterbirds-population-declining/8587720ABC

Four Corners report, Linton Besser and Lucy Carter: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-24/murray-darling-basin-water-pumped-by-irrigators/8732702

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