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The $13 billion reform to restore the health of the Murray-Darling Basin is “at great risk”, amid excessive payments to irrigators, failing environmental flows and an ignorance of water extraction that is “inconceivable” given available technology, a review of the 10-year plan has found.
The independent report by the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, released on Thursday, singles out Queensland and NSW for weak regulation. Victoria, too, is criticised for putting its river gum forests at risk by not backing overland flooding that downstream users support.
The Wentworth report said a weakening of oversight of the costly plan had led to a “systematic weakening” of the plan, “leaving Australia’s most productive basin seriously compromised”.
Jamie Pittock, a water expert from the Australian National University who was a key author of the report, said this year’s alleged water theft in NSW that spawned a spate of inquiries was “just the tip of the iceberg”.
There was “institutional corruption”, Dr Pittock said. “It’s the capture of state agencies by the powerful industry interests against the broader public interest.”
For its part, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority said it welcomed the Wentworth report but said it was “confident we are on track” to implement the plan.
“We do not support the report’s finding that Basin Plan implementation is inherently flawed,” a spokesperson said. “We are just five years into implementing the plan that is designed to repair 100 years’ worth of damage.” Irrigators win
The Wentworth report is among the latest in a flurry of recent reports into water management in the basin.
These include a compliance review released last week, a scathing assessment by the NSW Ombudsman earlier this month – which disclosed for the first time it had conducted three previous investigations in the sector – and the NSW government’s own independent commissioner’s report also released on Thursday.
The irrigation community had been a “major beneficiary” of water reforms so far, with “windfall gains” made from a large transfer of water entitlements from public to private ownership, the report said.
These gains had been boosted by the plan’s $2.7 billion investment in acquiring water entitlements from “willing sellers” and $3.6 billion in investments to modernise irrigation infrastructure worth an average of $400,000 per irrigation business, it said. That latter sum could rise to $700,000 by the end of the plan. ‘Inconceivable’
Despite the largesse, however, metering remains poor with about one-third of overall water use in the basin continuing to be unmetered despite $500 million invested in water accounting.
“[I]t is inconceivable that we do not know how much water is being extracted from surface and groundwater systems for consumptive use,” the report said.
Metering varied, with South Australia monitoring 95 per cent of water use the best, and Queensland the worst, at just 32 per cent. NSW, by far the biggest extractor, metered only about two-thirds of use.
Dr Pittock said the implementation of the readily available technology “would go a long way to rebuilding trust in the governance of our water”.
Another way to boost support for the plan would be to divert more of the remaining $5.1 billion to diversify industries in towns doing it tough, such as Moree and Deniliquin in NSW and Renmark in SA, Dr Pittock said.
Many of the agricultural job losses experienced across the basin were due to the automation of farming, such as round bailing machines, and “have nothing to do with Basin Plan”, he said. Total demand for seasonal workers in the irrigation industry had dropped 75 per cent between 1999 and 2013. ‘Appalling’ environmental progress
Environment measures, too, continue to be poor across the basin. Native fish populations in the Murray River have dropped to just 10 per cent of pre-colonial era levels over the past century, the report said.
While many of the wetlands had shown some improvement – such as the Gwydir wetlands – “they remain in a degraded condition” and fall short of the ecological standards listed in the plan’s treaty, it said.
The plan had aimed to “export” or remove 2 million tonnes of salt a year, but was averaging less than half that goal.
“It’s appalling that we’re only exporting half the salt that we targeted,” Dr Pittock said. “It’s appalling that the health of the red gum forests continues to decline, and it’s appalling the number of water birds has flatlined.”
The plan to recover 3200 gigalitres of water for the environment from an annual use in 2012 of 13.6 GL, was about two-thirds achieved.
Even so, that sum fell well short of the 3.86 to 6.98 GL the Murray Darling Basin Authority gave as its best estimate of water recovery to secure the system’s health, the report noted.
One issue was to insure that environment water secured in say, Queensland, did not “become fair game” for extra extraction once it flowed across the border into NSW, Dr Pittock said.
“The public’s paid a lot of money for that water in Queensland and it should be able to be shepherded all the way down the Darling, and down to the Coorong [in South Australia],” he said.
He also singled out Victoria for bowing to farmers – such as between the Eildon Weir and Seymour on the Goulburn River – for blocking pulses of environmental water needed for downstream ecosystems.
“They’ve gone backwards,” Dr Pittock said. “It means the floodplain forests of Victoria will die, let alone those further down river.” ‘Who wears the loss?’
The basin-wide recovery estimates also ignored the potential for the loss of so-called return flows, as irrigation became more efficient and less of the irrigated water leaked back into environment.
The issue of climate change also remained largely overlooked.
“There is a big risk with climate change that we end up with less water in the basin, particularly in the southern basin,” Dr Pittock said.
“The governments have said ‘it’s too hard…that we’ll deal with in 2026′” when the plan will be reviewed, he said. “That’s not really good enough.”
“If there’s less water in the basin due to climate change, who wears the loss? Is it the farmers, is it environment or is the federal government?” Dr Pittock said. ‘Balance’
Niall Blair, NSW’s water minister, said his government was committed to “balancing the requirements of our food and fibre growers, communities and the environment”.
“NSW will follow the COAG-agreed implementation plan for the Basin Plan as the most credible way to deliver the Plan on time and in full,” he said.
COAG ministers are due to meet to discuss progress on the plan on December 19, with a follow-up meeting next year to implement changes.
Jeremy Buckingham, the NSW Greens water spokesman, though, said the Wentworth report shows the plan is “on the brink of failure because of recalcitrant states, a tame Murray Darling Basin Authority, a dysfunction water market that is being rorted, a lack of compliance, and National Party water ministers acting to destroy it”.
“We have had cascading reports concluding the Murray Darling Basin Plan is failing and billions of taxpayer’s dollars are being wasted on projects that are not restoring our rivers and wetlands,” he said.
Steve Whan, chief executive of the National Irrigators’ Council and a former NSW MP, said removal of constraints on flooding was one of the “very challenging issues to be dealt with”.
“It’s easy for someone sitting in Canberra to make statements about needing to speed this up,” Mr Whan said. “On the ground though, we are talking about flooding people’s properties, and most Australian’s would agree that needs to be approached in a cautious and consultative way.”
The group “strongly disagreed” with some aspects of the Wentworth report, particularly criticism about infrastructure investment and the poor metering in some regions.
“The overwhelming majority of water users on the system have modern and accurate meters,” he said. “We need to tackle the exceptions not the majority.”
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.