Murray-Darling reform plan again condemned

Murray-Darling reform plan again condemned


Condemnation continues from almost all quarters for the federal Labor government’s plans to regenerate the Murray-Darling Basin with the latest attacks coming from within parliament, conservationists and the scientific community.

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MBDA) plan for the major water resource is under attack from the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Australian Greens Party, various state administrations and even the highly respected CSIRO.

The Australian Greens Party, which is a major supporter of the minority Labor government and holds the balance of power in the upper house Senate, has threatened to vote down the latest plan in federal parliament unless more water is returned to the ailing river system.

At the same time the Australian Conservation Foundation has strongly criticised claims that returning water to the Murray-Darling river system will increase the price of food in Australia as grossly misleading.

The ACF said it is wrong to say that setting limits on irrigation water use would have the same impact as drought on irrigation businesses and be the primary cause of increasing food prices.

ACF points out that in reality, drought increases irrigation water demand and has most negative impacts on dry land agriculture, which was not the case if sustainable limits were set on irrigation water use.

The organisation said that with sustainable limits in place irrigators are able to trade water, or invest in efficiencies to meet their business demands.

It also pointed out that in 2005-06 non-irrigated agriculture, farmers who rely on rainfall, accounted for 63 per cent of the gross value of agricultural production in the Murray-Darling Basin.

As federal Water Minister Tony Burke began the battle to sell the draft plan to local irrigation communities, Australian Greens leader Senator Bob Brown hinted the minister’s biggest fight might play out in parliament.

He said the Greens would continue to insist on a higher environmental return than the draft plan, put forward by the MDBA, to return 2750 gigalitres (GL) of water annually to the system.

The party believes that amount of water is not enough to restore the river.

The Greens could move a disallowance motion when the final plan is tabled next year, leaving the minority Labor government at the mercy of the coalition, which is yet to state its voting intentions.

Australian Greens water spokesperson Senator Sarah Hanson-Young backed her leader, saying unless Mr Burke made improvements to the plan she would recommend the Greens not support it.

Amid criticism from environmentalists that at least 4000GL of water is needed to restore the basin to good health, Mr Burke is adamant that returning any more than about 3000GL would be unmanageable.

He visited Shepparton in Victoria and Griffith in New South Wales to begin mustering support for the draft.

Griffith mayor Mike Neville said the MDBA and the government needed to explain the 2750GL figure.

Irrigators are upset with the draft because it doesn’t specify where most of the water cuts will come from, or where they’ll end up.

“How can the Murray-Darling Basin Authority accurately take into account south-eastern impacts when the full volume of water recovery from the Murrumbidgee Valley is not yet known?” Mr Neville said.

Senator Brown also criticised the MDBA over its methodology, which was revealed on Monday not to have included climate change modelling to 2030, but instead used historical climate data.

At the same time the respected Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) also confirmed the authority’s 2750GL figure would not achieve all its environmental targets.

Senator Brown said the MDBA should have consulted the 2008 report by Professor Ross Garnaut on climate change, which stated that without action, 92 per cent of the basin’s agricultural production could be cut by 2100.

A 20-week consultation period for the plan has begun, after which the authority concedes there may well be changes.

Meanwhile, South Australia’s state premier Jay Weatherill has said he will wait until after the consultation period to consider launching a High Court challenge to the draft plan.