The Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) were quick to emphasise in their briefing that their draft Basin Plan is still a work in progress, but what we heard was deeply concerning for our ailing rivers. The ‘current thinking’ would leave some of them in their existing poor state of health.
Years of scientific evidence all points in the same direction – the Murray and the Darling and their tributaries need at least 4,000 GL of extra water to have a reasonable chance of long-term health. Yet the MDBA is proposing to return only 2,800 GL by 2019 – definitely a step forward but not the permanent fix that the Basin Plan was intended to achieve. Frustratingly, the MDBA didn’t come up with a convincing explanation of why they had chosen this figure or what exactly it will achieve for our rivers.
What we need to know is where the trade-offs are – what are we losing by not delivering the full 4,000 GL? How does the figure of 2,800 GL compare with other potential water recovery targets such as 3,200 GL or 3,600 GL? What do any of them actually mean for the fish and the birds of the Basin (what opportunities will they get to breed?), the quality of the water resource (too salty to use?) and the farming communities that depend on healthy rivers?
The MDBA has a lot of complicated things to say. They talk a lot about ‘adaptive management’, a ‘mid-term review’ to see how they are tracking, ‘localism’ to get people involved in the implementation of the plan and ‘system constraints’ on the delivery of environmental water. But what do these things really mean? For example, ‘system constraints’ can mean anything form the design of dam outlets to the risk of flooding Shepparton. What we need is a clear picture of what they are, the extent of their impact and what can be done about them, at what cost and by who. What we’ve heard so far isn’t a solution, more a justification for failing to deliver environmental outcomes.
Despite all these complicated terms, we’re still missing the answer to a simple question – will the draft Basin Plan provide enough water to return our rivers to health?