After a turbulent year, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority today released the draft of the $10 billion Murray-Darling Basin Plan which is aimed at restoring the health of Australia’s most important river system. And it seems neither irrigators nor scientists are happy with the latest inclination of the Plan.

Just 2750 gigalitres of water is to be returned to the river, a significant drop from the original draft guide which pushed for 3000-4000 gigalitres in cuts. In fact, it’s a drop from just days ago, when the MDBA website promised the 2800 gigalitres would be returned, a number it has bandied around for many months. 

“Our plan is flexible and will allow us to monitor and adapt,” said Murray Darling Basin Authority chair Craig Knowles. “It’s a plan that will achieve important environmental objectives and is a pathway forward that allows us all to continue to learn and build on our knowledge about how to better manage the Murray-Darling Basin for all of its values.”

Knowles took over the position of chair after Mike Taylor resigned late last year criticising the requirements of balancing the Water Act 2007 with the social and economic implications of the cuts.

At the time the cuts of 3000-4000 gigalitres was said to be needed in order to meet the objectives of the Water Act. Last year’s public meetings saw irrigators burning copies of the plan and thousands attend angry town hall meetings. The MDBA will now begin 20 weeks of public consultations over the plan.

Northern farmers are celebrating more than their southern brethren today, with 85% of the water cuts to come from the southern half of the basin. As Sue Neales and Jared Owens report in The Australian, only 15% of the 2750 gigalitres of cuts will come from northern NSW and southern Queensland.

“It’s done nothing for us,” said Victorian Farmer’s Federation water council chairman Richard Anderson. “We’ve had a new chairman and new process, but we’re still no better off.”

The cuts just aren’t enough to restore the health of the river, says Dr Jamie Pittock, a water researcher from the Crawford School of Economics and Government at Australian National University. “The amount of water to be reallocated is insufficient (2,800 GL) to sustain significant areas of freshwater ecosystems — the government’s own guide suggested in 2010 that as much as 7,600 GL need to be reallocated. The draft Plan makes inadequate allowances for the loss of water expected with climate change.”

“Returning more water to the freshwater environment will always help to a greater or lesser extent, but the draft Plan is a case of too little (2,800 GL) and too late (2019-2024),” argued Pittock.

Last year Peter Cosier, founder and director at the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, resigned from his position on the 8-person testing committee for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan after the MDBA refused an independent scientific review of the new MDBA modelling.

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority conducted two years of its own research and put together its own figure of 3850 gigalitres, explained Wentworth Group environmental engineer Tim Stubbs earlier this year. “The authority — after two years of its own research — sees an absolute minimum of nearly 4000 and then suddenly ‘new modelling’ says 2800 gigalitres, without giving any indication of how that amount will affect changes to the health of the river system,” Stubbs told Crikey in May. There has still no been an independent review of the MDBA’s scientific modelling.

Rain cooled the momentum for Murray-Darling reform, but it did not stop the possibility of future droughts or the effects of long-term climate change on the basin. Now reform will depend on political pull, writes Tom Arup in The Age:

“Tony Abbott will have to decide whether he wants to help fulfil Howard’s Murray legacy or exploit rural anger over the Murray plan as another weapon against the government. The danger in all this is that reform of a crucial asset will be lost to our short memories.”

To mourn what they say is the death of the river, Environment Victoria is holding a mock funeral in Melbourne today, where protesters will wear black, carry a real coffin and march their procession to the Melbourne office of the prime minister.

The whole proposed draft plan can be read online here. A review of the plan will occur in 2015, with the water cuts to be completely under way by 2019.

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