More than five years since the Howard government concluded that only national control could ensure sustainable use of the Murray-Darling Basin's waters, self-interested state squabbling continues to reinforce the point. The 2007 Water Act established the powers of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, including enforcement powers, ''to ensure that Basin water resources are managed in an integrated and sustainable way''. Under a third government, the authority has issued a fourth version of its plan for the basin, but the states are as much at odds as ever.
The gulf between states – and between irrigators and environmentalists – remains vast. The last plan set an annual target of 2750 billion litres to be returned to the system to maintain environmental health. The latest compromise offers a flexible ''adjustment mechanism'': the target range is 2400 to 3200 billion litres, allowing for savings from better management and infrastructure. Federal buybacks already total 1547 billion litres, 56 per cent of the way towards the last target.
The states, though, remain deadlocked; despite the facts of overallocation, no one wants to give up ''their share''. South Australia, which bears the brunt of shortages downstream, believes the states are beyond agreement and plans High Court action in support of the 4000 billion-litre-a-year environmental release that research recommended. Victoria and New South Wales are serving their own political and agricultural interests and won't agree to more than 2100 billion litres. The Age has long argued that the record of actual water availability over the past decade simply does not support claims that the plan's targets would be economically devastating.
The lessons of history and the evidence of science are still being ignored in the interstate contest for water. Another vast but finite resource, the Great Artesian Basin, has been so depleted that a UNESCO report recently listed it among the world's most significant areas of groundwater decline. Outflow has fallen for a century. One in three artesian bores no longer flows. Over the same time, irrigation in the Murray-Darling increased fivefold.
The impacts are obvious, but the states seem blind to all but their own short-term political and economic interests. They have three weeks to respond before Water Minister Tony Burke puts legislation to Parliament. The plan is imperfect but a much better compromise than anything the states have offered. So poor is their record as custodians of the Murray-Darling that the states' inability to agree should not be allowed to stall national water reform any longer.