Back in 2012, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan passed through Federal Parliament with high hopes that our greatest River system would be saved.
What was it all about, and what does it mean for the Murray's future?
First, some context:
Everyone accepts the Basin Plan is a compromise. But scientists have been crystal clear that the 3200 gigalitres secured in the original Plan is the absolute bare minimum needed for the River’s long-term survival.
We have to claw back that amount – approx. six Sydney Harbours – every year from irrigation and industry to ensure more natural flow keeps the entire Basin ecosystem alive.
So far, about two thirds have been recovered (although there are doubts about this).
This week’s Senate debate was a fierce battle over the rest.
What was debated?
Parliament was being asked to cut the overall amount of expected water flow by about 20% in return for a series of projects that are meant to deliver ‘equivalent’ environmental outcomes down the track.
The argument goes that by clever engineering and timing the environment could actually benefit more by receiving less water.
The problem is this: there is little evidence so far these 36 ‘equivalent’ projects will really deliver what they promise .
That’s why we argued it made better sense for Federal Parliament to pause any further water cuts until there is far more confidence that what has been promised is being delivered, and all the unethical behaviour upstream has been stamped out.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, Parliament agreed to a cut of real water in return for a series of IOUs.
But wasn’t there a deal done to save the Plan?
It depends on how much trust you have in the process.
We desperately want to believe the Murray Darling Basin Plan will work; it remains our best hope.
But after almost $8 billion taxpayer dollars have been spent, the River is still in deep trouble. Our most important and internationally listed wetland — the Coorong — is in a desperate state.
And that’s even before climate change has been factored in.
Something’s clearly not working.
Labor secured some commitments (see here for a great summary), but we have heard much of it before, and most of the same players still have huge influence over the outcome.
For the next few years, while we cross our fingers, the states will work out how to deliver the alternative projects.
What else should happen?
The Wentworth Groups of Concerned Scientists have prepared a series of conditions that ‘equivalent’ projects need to meet to deliver the environmental outcomes promised. It is essential these are fully adopted.
Also, the option of direct water buybacks need to be back on the table, as this remains by far the most cost effective and credible path to recovering the water.
What else could happen?
Above the political positioning and empty promises looms an increasing doubt over the legality of the whole Plan.
In the lead up to the Senate debate, the SA Murray Darling Royal Commissioner released a fascinating issues paper that suggests the environmental priorities of the original Act that underpins the Basin Plan have been legally undermined.
This potentially has huge implications for the political compromises that have steadily chipped away over the last few years at the full delivery of the Plan – including this week’s Senate vote.
I have no doubt a potential High Court challenge is a real possibility.
So what can we do?
Regardless of what comes next, South Australia must continue to shout and scream.
As the people at the end of the River, we have no choice but to keep demanding enough real water to make a difference. If our state remains silent, the future of the River will indeed be bleak.
Our best estimate of how much water is needed for the river to remain healthy must be based on scientific evidence, not political compromise.
The consequences of failure for the River and the communities that rely on it — dead wetlands, waterbirds and floodplain forests, mounting salinity levels and blue-green algae blooms — are phenomenally high.
This is the biggest investment in natural resource management in Australia’s history. It’s our most important River.
The stakes couldn’t be higher.
Chief Executive, Conservation SA