River Murray agreement to waterproof SA may turn out to be a castle built on sand
Wednesday, 14 November 2012
John Williams, Adelaide Advertiser
South Australians have been concerned since before Federation in 1901 about the over-allocation of the River Murray.
Questions about the future of communities along the river, and the overall health of the Lower Lakes are not new to South Australian history.
The recent agreement between the Commonwealth and South Australia to provide an additional 450GL to promote the health of the River Murray as it reaches the Coorong is to be welcomed.
Recently the Commonwealth Government introduced a Bill into Parliament that attempts to put a legislative framework around the agreement.
This followed tough negotiations by the SA Government.
The question must now be asked: Will the Commonwealth Bill guarantee the additional 450GL to the River Murray?
The Bill introduces a new part into the Water Act. Its objectives are to increase the average flow of water through the barrages to the Coorong and Lower Lakes.
In addition, it seeks to lower the levels of salinity in the lakes, increase the average depth of water at the mouth of the River Murray and generally support the floodplains and water-dependent ecosystems.
To support these essential objectives the Bill establishes the "environmental special account".
The account will hold the $1.77 billion that may be spent over the next decade to fulfil the objectives.
At first glance, who could argue with these objectives and the financial commitments behind them?
It is important to ensure that the Commonwealth's Bill fulfils the 450GL undertaking that has been given to SA.
There are a number of features of the Bill that raise concerns and warrant closer consideration and amendment by the Parliament.
First, the objectives will be achieved by removing constraints and "increasing the volume of the Basin water resources that is available for environmental use by up to 450 gigalitres".
This means that the 450GL is a ceiling, not a floor below which the additional environmental water can fall.
Guaranteeing the 450GL would require the Bill to be amended to state clearly that the objectives will be achieved by "no less than" 450GL being returned to the Basin.
As it stands, the 450GL goal is simply aspirational, and certainly not guaranteed.
The 450GL additional water is intended to supplement the delivery of 2750GL by the Basin plan.
This target may itself be reduced in the future.
Second, the "special account" funds secured by the Bill may be spent on a series of activities.
These include improving water efficiency through better infrastructure, improving or modifying infrastructure including bridges and roads, increasing dam capacity and storage and acquiring an interest in land or purchasing water access rights.
These are obvious activities that would be required to deliver the additional water for the Murray.
However, the Bill does not prioritise these activities. The temptation to focus on infrastructure rather than reducing the over-allocation of the river may prove irresistible.
Further, the link between the expenditure of the funds and measurable outcomes for the health of the River is poorly made.
Moreover, other payments may be made to "address any detrimental social or economic impact on the wellbeing of any community in the Murray-Darling Basin associated with a project of purchase".
How much of the special account will be spent dealing with "social or economic" impacts of the projects?
The Bill is silent on this.
No one could doubt the need to support the Basin communities as changes in water practices are made.
Yet the introduction of social and economic factors raises an issue that continues to cast a shadow over the Water Act.
The Water Act rests its constitutional authority primarily on various international conventions.
In turn, those conventions focus on protecting and promoting environmental assets such as the Coorong.
Diverting attention from the environmental obligations begins to strain the Water Act's constitutional foundations.
Future proofing the South Australian agreement against intransigence, backsliding and an evaporation of political will is now a matter of urgency.
Without strengthening the promise of 450GL additional water, the SA agreement may turn out to be a castle built on sand.