While the recent rains are a welcome reprieve, they’re on the tail-end of more than a decade of drought: a drought that had disastrous effects on wetlands and floodplain ecosystems, compounded by over-extraction of water from rivers.
Amongst the flurry of calls from irrigation, farming and Coalition quarters for the Plan to be delayed, we mustn’t forget that the Murray River nearly died.
CSIRO is predicting a drier future, so if decisive action is not taken now, we once again risk seeing the Coorong and our River Red Gums forest wetlands on death’s door.
What’s more, fifty-seven of Australia’s leading scientists have called for a strong plan that delivers for the environment – no matter what the weather.
The simple fact is that the recent rains haven’t solved the ecological crisis in our river systems. (Nor do we necessarily share water more fairly, just ‘cos there’s more of it to go around – more on that later.)
To impart one of Professor Richard Kingsford’s analogies: plants and animals in wetland ecosystems respond well when floods occur, but right now, their ecological health is so degraded, that rather than bouncing back like a super-ball, they’ve more got the bounce of a tired tennis-ball. For example, before the recent rains water bird numbers were down to 20 percent of long-term average population numbers. Even if they double as result of the flurry of breeding now in progress, they will still be at less than half pre-drought levels. Not ideal.
On the eve of the release of the Guide to the Draft Plan (yep – that’s right, a guide to a draft) ACF Healthy Ecosystems campaign manager Paul Sinclair quipped that “[w]e can’t just rely on rain. We need to use our brains also, and that means returning water to the river and supporting irrigation communities make the changes that our country needs.”
Since then, it’s rained. With parts of northern Victoria still in flood, wetlands are getting a decent drink for the first time in years.
Wrong. Because nothing and no one can survive on one decent drink every 20 years. And because we’re not yet far enough down the track to achieving a Plan that returns water to rivers and supports irrigations communities to transition to drier conditions.
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority were clearly of this viewpoint last September when the ABC reported that they considered water reforms to be vital and must go ahead, despite drought-breaking floods throughout the Basin.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and National Farmers Federation President Jock Laurie were singing from the same song sheet when they called for delay on the basis of increased rainfall. Elsewhere the National Farmers Federation said there was no need for the MDBA to stick to their original timeframe.
National Irrigators Council chief Danny O’Brien waded into the debate, claiming that “the big problems that have been facing the basin in the past 10 years have been as a result of the drought” thereby neatly ignoring the fact that extraction from the rivers in the Basin has increased by 500 percent over the last hundred years, creating a permanent state of man-made drought.
The Australian reported that irrigators saying that massive inflows into the nation’s major rivers show a preoccupation with returning water to the environment to be misplaced.
This prompted me to blog : “really, the current ‘preoccupation’ with returning water to the environment is about more than the current downpours. Calling for water to be returned to the Basin’s environment is about more than the next water year, and, in fact, about more than the next state or federal election.”
In 2008, the Victorian Commissioner for the environment, Ian MacPhail, was at pains to point out that floodplains, need floods, to function as floodplain ecosystems.
Now is the time, while there’s more water around, to work out a Plan to share water more fairly: shared more fairly so that Victoria’s rivers get more than what’s left over once consumptive demand has been satisfied.
The rain is no cause for delay – if anything it’s provided a reprieve and an opportunity to capitalise on the environmental benefits of the flood events.
In an Opinion piece for the Weekly Times last month, Commonwealth Water Minister Tony Burke wrote that we don’t know how far away the next drought is. He went on to say “[t]hat’s why, despite recent rain and flooding, we must keep moving to protect the Murray-Darling Basin. We have a unique opportunity to take the necessary steps to achieve real reform. We must not relax because there is water in the system.”
There’s no doubt that we must press ahead with a national Plan to protect the Murray River. This is a once in a generation opportunity and 2011 is our chance to turn things around – no matter what the weather.
1 CSIRO (October 2008) Water Availability in the Murray-Darling Basin, report from CSIRO to the Australian Government, at http://www.csiro.au/files/files/pna0.pdf
2 Kingsford, R. & others (December, 2010) Scientists offer qualified support for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, at http://www.wetrivers.unsw.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/Scientific-S…
3 SoE Report, 2008 available at http://www.ces.vic.gov.au/CES/wcmn301.nsf/childdocs/-FCB9B8E076BEBA07CA2…
4 In 2007-08, Victoria’s rivers received a paltry one percent of total water entitlements delivered that year. For more information see Bringing the Victorian Water Act into the 21st Century, available at https://environmentvictoria.org.au/library/bringing-victorian-water-a…