Anne Reeves, OAM
“Inaction is not an option; nor is inadequate action.” (President, Australian Academy of Science, on release of the State of the Environment Report, 19/7/22)
Water is so much more than a resource and a commodity to be managed for human economic benefit; it is the lifeblood that shapes and sustains our world, our rivers and wetlands.
Tanya Plibersek, as Minister for Water and Environment, recognised this in her statements when releasing the previously withheld 2021 State of the Environment Report. Despite some sweeteners drawing on site specific positive outcomes, the overall picture is not good. Taken aback by the dismal progress to right water wrongs, the Minister highlighted how hard it would be to deliver on the Murray Darling Basin Plan as finally adopted. Not a surprise to those who have been tracking attempts to subvert achievement of the spirit of the forward-looking Commonwealth Water Act adopted under John Howard with bi-partisan support back in 2007.
The purpose of the Basin Plan is to return water to rivers and wetlands for native fish and waterbird populations and ecosystem health. This recovery from decades of over-extraction is critical to build natural resilience to the threats of climate change.
One chance for positive action has recently been advanced in an article by Tyler Rotche ( Damning report a chance to change course on water wrongs )*, following the release of another formerly withheld report on the Water for the Environment Special Account under the Murray Darling Basin Plan. The article nicely explains how hard it is to deliver the promised return to the environment of the 450 GL (450 billion litre) portion of the total 3,200 GL volume as per the adopted Basin Plan, concluding with the option of side-stepping the futile by reverting to the proven – and cheaper – route of buy back purchase of water from willing sellers.
In New South Wales state groundwater and regional water strategies are now being developed. With vision and leadership – and sufficient community momentum – there is the potential to better consider the role of water in the wider landscape. However, up to now most of the government focus has been on regulation and how to divvy up water resources for human use through Water Sharing Plans.
Reviews of these Water Sharing Plans are now being rolled out by the Natural Resources Commission. The most recent being on water sharing plans for the Unregulated Castlereagh, Border Rivers, and North Western Unregulated and Fractured Rock regions.
These strong reports explain that water access entitlements vastly exceed the limits of extraction and that there are no compliance assessments to check that limits are being met. Further, that flows cannot be adequately protected, leaving downstream wetlands unprotected. Surmising that these Plans are inconsistent with the priorities of the Act, as well as the precautionary principle that underpins the Act, in response the NSW Government agreed to extend the Plans for 2 years so they could be remade.
And while these reviews and strategy developments are in train, the vexed issue of Floodplain Harvesting rumbles on with the latest – fourth – version of regulations now before Parliament; conveniently tabled during a long gap in sitting days, making debate, let alone challenge, impossible. Incorporated in now gazetted Water Sharing Plans for the Border Rivers, Gwydir and Macquarie Valleys, some fortunate private landowners in the upper north are thereby formally granted entitlement to substantial volumes of valuable water to the detriment of those downstream. The obfuscation that has swayed some into suggesting that – contrary to scientific findings including from Dr Mallen-Cooper and Dr Brenton Zampatti – the Darling/Baaka is an ephemeral river, is gobsmakingly appalling.
The powerful, award winning documentary RIVER shown in cinemas and on the ABC over the past two years conveys some of the majesty and force of water in landscapes wild and tamed across the world. Lateral thinking is needed, new and strategic frameworks that take account of the intrinsic connectivity of our rivers and wetlands. Conservation of the natural world, while managing for human health and wellbeing, is embedded in NPA’s mission of protecting nature through community action. Our politicians need to listen to the community if they are to make the wise but difficult decisions on water management for an ecologically sustainable future.
The National Resource Council was established to advise the government on sustainable management of our natural resources; for details of the Plan reviews visit their website at https://www.nrc.nsw.gov.au//wsp-reviews.
Thank you to colleagues at the Inland Rivers Network and Lifeblood Alliance for constructive input.