Blog | 14th Oct, 2010

what’s it really trying to do?

From the response at the consultation session held by the Murray Darling Basin Authority in Shepparton on Tuesday, and the outcry in Deniliquin on Wednesday, you would think that the Basin Plan was trying to do one thing only – take water away from struggling communities and so destroy Australian agriculture.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth – the whole purpose of the Basin Plan is to halt and reverse the ecological crisis facing the basin, and as a result put agriculture on a sustainable footing into the future, thus providing security for the communities who depend on it.

Nobody is denying that returning water to river systems is going to cause changes, but it may not be half as bad as people fear. In fact, existing government programs of water buyback and irrigation modernisation will get us at least half the way to where we want to be. And even if the reductions in water use are at the top end of what the Authority is proposing, the cuts will be less than what communities across the basin have experienced in the last 10 years of drought.

Professor Quentin Grafton of the Australian National University says that water use across the basin was 70 percent less in 2007/08 than it was in 2000/01. Yet the value of irrigated agricultural production fell by less than 1 percent! While it hasn’t been easy, our farmers are finding ways to produce more value for less water use, and they’re getting better at it. Some are prospering as a result.

One piece of research missing form the Guide to the proposed Basin Plan is an estimate of the positive economic and social benefits of restoring the basin to health, and the cost of not doing so. If we go on extracting such a high proportion of river flows, we risk poisoning the whole basin with salinity and so undermining the very agricultural base we are so keen to protect. And it’s easy to forget the joy, excitement and increased well-being that the return of water to rivers and wetlands brings, let alone the direct economic benefits and the ecosystem services they provide.

So it’s time to take a step back form the clamour and the outcry, and think about what’s really at stake. The Basin Plan is the best opportunity in a generation to re-establish the connection between ecology and economy, turn around the fortunes of the much abused Murray-Darling Basin, rescue our rivers and return them to health, and by doing so resuscitate the communities that depend on them for their long-term future.

This is the context we need for proper consultation on the Authority’s Guide to the proposed Basin Plan. Check out what we at Environment Victoria think of it here