The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists released its 25-page criticism of the Murray-Darling Basin draft plan earlier this month. And while many news outlets reported that that the scientists were scathing of the plan, few explained exactly why. We thought we’d let the Wentworth Group explain it for themselves.. 

Tim Stubbs, environmental engineer at the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, writes: The draft plan released for public comment by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority on 28 November 2011 does not provide the most basic information required to allow anybody to make an informed decision on the future management of the water resources of the basin.

The absence of this information makes it impossible for the community, science or parliament to understand the implications or have confidence the plan has any prospect of delivering a healthy working river:

  1. The plan specifies a volume of water but it does not identify the volume of water required to deliver a healthy working river, as required by the Commonwealth Water Act;
  2. The plan cites river management infrastructure as the limiting factor however there is no assessment of the feasibility or cost of redesigning river management infrastructure (such as periodically flooding paddocks or raising the height of a bridge) so that a healthy working river can be delivered;
  3. The plan does not incorporate in the modelling the impact that increasing groundwater extractions by over 2,600GL will have on surface water flows, many of the groundwater systems in the Basin are linked to river systems;
  4. The plan sets long term diversion limits on the assumption that there is no risk to river health from climate change; and
  5. There is no information presented on the effectiveness of the plan to cope with long dry periods such as that experienced throughout the Basin during most of the last decade, or deliver the volumes of water required keep the Murray mouth open as a functioning (Ramsar listed) estuary and export the 2,000,000 tonnes of salt accumulating in the river system each year.

As it stands, the Australian parliament should reject this plan.

Over the past four years significant progress has been made by the Authority and others in understanding and modelling of the Murray-Darling Basin river system and the volumes of water required for a healthy working river system. Progress has also been made in understanding the social and economic costs resulting from changes in the use of water in the Basin.

This good work has not been capitalised on by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to develop a comprehensive and transparent Draft Basin Plan. Instead the Murray-Darling Basin Authority ignores much of the good work and has instead produced a draft Plan that manipulates science in an attempt to engineer a pre-determined political outcome.

The draft plan’s failings are of such significance that iterative changes will not lead to a good plan. The Commonwealth government should stop the process, instruct the Authority to withdraw the draft Plan, abandon the proposal for a 2015 review and instead take the time necessary to include the science and social science now.

The government should also suspend the current infrastructure grants and water buyback programs, and use this opportunity to establish a genuine industry reform which is aimed at delivering water reform. This must respect the knowledge and expertise of communities in those localities that are likely to experience significant impacts.

This does not mean starting the whole reform process again. It means capitalising on all that has been learnt in the past four years to write a new plan that delivers a healthy working river. This plan should clearly articulate the environmental outcomes that are likely to be achieved for a range of water volumes and the social and economic costs of returning this water to the river and delivering it down the river system.

Nature has been kind to us this year. Let us take advantage of our good fortune and give ourselves the time to deliver the reforms that our generation is so capable of achieving.

It is far better to delay this plan now, than to introduce a flawed plan to parliament that will lead to the worst possible outcome: on-going degradation and on-going uncertainty for communities.

If the basin plan does not deal with the fundamental bio-physical needs of the system, such as moving sufficient water down the system to restore medium-size floods, managing the Murray mouth during times of drought and discharging the salts, it will be impossible to restore the health of the Murray-Darling Basin.

It beggars belief that a statutory Authority could justify spending over $9 billion of taxpayers money to recover 2,750 GL from the rivers (which CSIRO says won’t fix the problem), and then increase the groundwater take by 2,600 GL when we know that many of the groundwater systems are linked to river systems.

With regard to the impacts of the basin plan on people, everyone is acutely aware that major economic reform can only be achieved if the people affected are made part of the solution. The Wentworth Group has been arguing this case for years.

We know from the Authority’s own economic analysis that at a basin scale the net basin wide economic impact of water reform is likely to be less than 1%. The worst case long-term scenario would see 1,600 fewer jobs across the basin by 2019, a rate of about 200 jobs per year.  This is against a background of 13,000 new jobs that are currently being created across the basin each year.  Other models suggest that there could even be a net increase in jobs because of the massive public investments in water buybacks and infrastructure.

Of course we also know that there will be greater impacts on some smaller communities that are heavily reliant on irrigated agriculture.  We need to acknowledge these impacts and establish a genuine industry reform process, one that respects the local knowledge and capacity of those local communities.  It is here that the Commonwealth should be directing financial support so that those communities can adjust to a future with less water.

Nobody believes the draft plan released by the Authority is capable of delivering the reforms needed to create a healthy working Murray-Darling Basin. This is bad policy built on a flawed, 19th century world view, that environmental reform can only be achieved at the expense of the economy. There are no winners in this old fashioned view.

Murray Murmurings is a series of articles on the Murray Darling Basin Plan from different interested parties — farmers, lobby groups, environmentalists, etc. Head here for an overview of the basin plan draft. If you’d like to contribute a piece to Murray Murmurings, please email ajamieson[at]crikey.com.au

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