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Murray Murmurings

May 9, 2012

Climate change & the Murray Darling: when our most divisive enviro issues meet

Climate change and the Murray-Darling Basin plan are two of the most divisive environmental issues in Australia. They are also two of the most important. But what does the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) plan to do about climate change in its Murray-Darling Basin plan?

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Crikey intern David Donaldson writes: Climate change and the Murray-Darling Basin plan are two of the most divisive environmental issues in Australia. They are also two of the most important. But what does the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) plan to do about climate change in its Murray-Darling Basin plan?

Not enough, says John Williams of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists. “The estimate of the sustainable diversion limit, which is the amount of water we need to have in the system to maintain a healthy river, doesn’t have any provision for climate change at the moment,” he told Crikey.

Williams served as the NSW Natural Resources Commissioner from 2006-11 and is a former chief of land and water at the CSIRO.

“They haven’t looked at what the river needs to be healthy,” said Williams. “Society may choose to have unhealthy rivers, but we need the science to say how we have a healthy river, and they haven’t provided that.”

Williams’ concerns were backed up by a recent report from the Goyder Institute for Water Research, which criticised the Murray-Darling Basin Authority for not taking sufficient account of the future effects of climate change in its controversial plan.

According to the report: “The possible impacts of climate change and increased groundwater allocations on future water availability are not evaluated in the flow recovery scenarios provided by the MDBA.”

But the MDBA’s chief executive Rhondda Dickson claims that this is not the case, arguing that the plan must be flexible enough to respond to unanticipated changes to climate.

Dickson recently told a climate change conference that “we believe that our adaptive and pragmatic approach is a critical step in adapting to climate change: allowing enough flexibility in the planning process.  Our ability to predict future climate trends is improving all the time, as is our understanding of how climate will affect stream inflows.”

Given the high degree of environmental diversity within the Murray-Darling catchment area — which takes in four states and the ACT across several climate zones — the basin’s climate will continue to be highly variable, Dickson argues. Not only must residents contend with global climate change, but cyclical effects — droughts, floods and everything in between — will continue to cause short and mid-term inconsistencies in weather around the catchment.

The MDBA’s general manager of water planning Tony McLeod agrees with his colleague, citing Australia’s experience with an already variable climate as giving the MDBA an advantage in anticipating future climate changes. “We’re setting out a framework that deals with extreme wets and extreme drys,” he told Crikey. “We’ve got a lot of lived experience with those extremes. It doesn’t mean we can’t learn more and do more, and we’re certainly doing this. But extremes aren’t a new thing.”

The plan will be reviewed at least every ten years, and there is the capacity for reviews as frequently as every five. The first is to take place in 2015, before the plan’s proposed enforcement date in 2019.

But Williams thinks the MDBA shouldn’t wait until 2015 to decide what its targets will be. “I think that the science is more than sufficient to build that into where the sustainable diversion limit is, and they haven’t provided the science to establish this SDL. It puts awful uncertainty onto the community,” he told Crikey.

Williams thinks that the MDBA’s well-publicised backing-down from its scientifically-based proposed sustainable diversion limit of 3,000 to 4,000 gigalitres was a political move. “They’ve decided to base the recommendation on a political judgement rather than what the science, so they can instead through what society wants to do. They’ve mixed up politics and science, and that’s a murky thing to do.”

The most important thing Australia needs to do, according to McLeod, is decide what environmental objectives the MDBA should aim for.

Last Friday the MDBA announced the creation of a new Advisory Committee on Social, Economic and Environmental Sciences, which will examine both science and socio-economic knowledge to help the basin plan adapt in coming years.

“We are keen to establish this independent advisory committee to help us focus our future science and knowledge priorities over the next few years,” said MDBA head Craig Knowles in a press release. “We are looking for the best and brightest minds in the fields of hydrology, ecology, social sciences and economics.”

The press release goes on to note that the science behind the basin plan is not up for questioning in this committee, stating “The recommendations of the CSIRO-led review of the science behind the draft plan will be part of the work of the Advisory Committee. The CSIRO review found that draft Basin Plan represented a sufficient basis to begin an adaptive process of managing the Basin.”

Speaking about the Authority’s planned new advisory committee , McLeod tells Crikey that it will “get us to have a conversation about what these environmental objectives are that we seek to achieve, and what we value.”

Expect the conversation to get even more heated.

5 comments

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5 thoughts on “Climate change & the Murray Darling: when our most divisive enviro issues meet

  1. green-orange

    @”Tim Stubbs from this group recently told a senate enquiry (again) that 30% water cuts in the drought only lead to 1% cuts in the Gross Value of Irrigated Agriculture”

    Considering that over half the water is used to flood irrigate grass and weeds for grazing, its unlikely that a 30% cut will result in _any_ reduction in net production at all.

  2. Hamis Hill

    For those actually concerned with the reality of climate change instead of battles of opinion the library of the Hydrogeological section of the NSW water resources commission had a scientific repoert titled “Riverine Response to Altered Hydrologic Regimen”, cannot recall the authors name, concentrating on the Murrumbidgeee and Murray “mesopatamia”or Riverina. The study concluded that the Murrumbidgee was only 5000 years old and began to flow(an altered hydrologic regimen) after a 10,000year drought, before which much higher rainfall left the river bed of an ancient stream of massive size still visible on aerial photographs and, yes, even from space between the present Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers.This is in your face evidence of climate change. Any comment or or is all just about opinions and nothing about fact? This is a hopeless debate if all interested parties have conditioned themselves to believe that ‘Science” ps a foreign langage that ony a few specialists can read, write and speak. Amodern day Tower of Babel doomed to ruin?
    The first peoples’ Dreamtime stories confirm the findings of this report, by the way, is it too much to ask that those interested in the debate track down, read and comment on this vital part of our continent’s recent geological history and abandon their obsession with babble?

  3. johnno42

    Astounded to hear the Wentworth Group is independent – they sure as hell look and sound like a lobby group to me. Credible? If that includes using data to mislead and if you want an example Tim Stubbs from this group recently told a senate enquiry (again) that 30% water cuts in the drought only lead to 1% cuts in the Gross Value of Irrigated Agriculture. The only problem is Tim, and his mate Quentin Grafton before him, didn’t adjust their data for inflation (1% becomes 15% when adjusted for inflation) and used a year in which horticulture (which is the real high value end of irrigation industry) got a 100% allocation, that is the only impacts were on crops like cotton and rice, however much of the buyback is coming from horticultural areas.

  4. Tom McLoughlin

    The premise if fine, no risk. Ignore the first comment.

    The new Committee, funded by govt, no doubt will be called “independent”. To sideline the Wentworth Group which is actually known as independent, respected and credible on science.

    I would expect nothing less from a professional fixer like Craig Knowles formerly of the NSW Right under trickster Bob Carr who cooked up the ‘making jobs and forests live together’ tv advertising campaign in the 1999 election here. Trouble was they allocated 20 year resource security to the woodchippers in publicly owned native forests, and in raw acreage gave far away to loggers than new national park. That’s the truth revealed on govt maps on my blog – contact for detail.

  5. johnno42

    Oh god, this stuff makes my head hurt. The writer’s premise is:
    Climate change and the Murray-Darling Basin plan are two of the most important environmental issues in Australia.
    Says who? It’s clear the author believes this but why should anyone else share his belief?
    I would have thought there are a lot more important issues – such as urban sprawl and ongoing coastal degradation from population growth, waste of resources in bigger houses and cars and the like.
    The challenge in climate change is in adaptation and the challenge in the Murray Darling Basin is management – both things that complex societies like ours are demonstrably good at.

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