News | 17th Mar, 2010

Our rivers are still dying for a drink

Wednesday, 17 March 2010
Kelly O'Shanassy, Opinion Piece, ABC Environment

Victorian Premier John Brumby is trying to buy Victorians a drink in this election year. But the rivers are still dying of thirst.

Yesterday the Victorian Government announced that water restrictions will be eased in Melbourne after Easter. Melburnians will be able to water their gardens more often and more sports grounds will once again be green.

It's true that no one actually likes water restrictions and we all want green ovals for the kids to play footy. So this is no doubt a politically savvy move by the ALP in an election year.

But Melbourne's dams are only 34.6 per cent full so it's not like we are swimming in water. And of course with climate change biting, no one can accurately predict what will happen with our rainfall in the future. Torrential rain one day, 40 degree heatwaves the next – that's Melbourne I suppose!

So problem number one is we don't have much water and we don't know what the year will bring in rainfall.

One of the key reasons why government has been able to lift restrictions is because the new North-South Pipeline will bring water to Melbourne from Victoria's north, which leads us to problem two.

Most of the water coming down the pipeline will not come from the water saved through the government's efforts to make irrigators in the north more water efficient, it will come from water earmarked for the Goulburn, Broken and Snowy Rivers to ease the pain the native fish, plants and animals feel from the prolonged drought.

So the Brumby government is taking water from stressed rivers in northern Victorian to ease water restrictions in Melbourne. Its doesn't really seem fair and sends a terrible signal to the nation that Melburnians will enjoy more water at the expense of northern Victoria's parched, and in some cases dying, rivers and the Murray-Darling Basin.

The problem is that our rivers are always last in line to get their fair share of water. Over the last three years, the Brumby Government has taken an extra 120 billion litres from the Yarra and Thomson on top of the usual volume of water extracted from these rivers each year. That 120 billion litres is not spare water, it is part of the rivers' legal right to water and is vital to maintaining river health.

Yesterday the Premier announced a return of 10 billion litres of that water. While this is an improvement on the status quo, it is still less than 10 per cent of the environmental water that has been taken over the past three years.

A wiser approach would be to lift restrictions on river flows before relaxing water restrictions for Melbourne. But perhaps that is not as politically enticing?

The fact is that while Melburnians have all pitched in to use less water, the State Government hasn't done what was needed to manage our rivers. They haven't delivered the flows that they promised to waterways, and in fact, they have made things worse.

That's why we need an independent authority to manage rivers and water use to make sure everyone gets what they need. We need to get the politics out of river health because every time there is decision between river health and providing water to Melbourne or other users, rivers lose out. This is a dangerous roll of the dice by government given that our water security is nearly entirely dependent upon healthy rivers in Victoria.

Furthermore, lifting restrictions without putting in place a big water efficiency program at the same time might just encourage wasteful water use. History shows that after restrictions are lifted, we will revert to our old habits unless we lock in the new ones. After years of telling us to save water our governments must continue to help us do just that.

In the upcoming election, we need all parties to commit to making every Victorian home energy and water efficient. That means major investment in retrofit programs that bring efficient showerheads, appliances, toilets and rainwater capture to every possible building. Environment Victoria has done the research and we know that we can save more water through retrofit programs than through restrictions and leave plenty of water for our rivers. We will also ease the growing pain of water and electricity bills that will rise as we bring online the expensive desalination plant.

Environmentalists like to think of ourselves as 'glass half full' kind of people. But with our reservoirs less than 35 per cent full, the fact is that the glass is two-thirds empty. In a state and federal election year we need our political leaders to rise to the challenge of water security by implementing solutions which protect our rivers, which for too long have been victim to relentless over-extraction.

Kelly O'Shanassy is the Chief Executive Officer of Environment Victoria, the peak community environment group in Victoria.