While a final version of the divisive Murray Darling Basin Plan has been signed into law, the future of the waterways that make up this vast river system has perhaps never been more uncertain. In less than two hundred years, European occupation of the Murray Darling Basin has seen this extraordinary network of rivers, wetlands, floodplains and forests disfigured, drained, polluted and clogged to within an inch of its life. No one can deny that thoughtless yet systematic over-extraction of water has been the source of the River's decline. Australia's slow strangulation of the Murray equates to an act of ecological self-harm: to endanger the major waterway on this, the driest inhabited continent on Earth, puts us all at risk. The floods of recent years have bought time and lowered the political pressure. The new Basin Plan announced by Environment Minister Tony Burke last week shows, at least, that governments are willing to brave the turbulent currents of water reform. But 'sealing the deal' doesn't mean that the River's troubles are over.
Crucially, we still don't know how much water the Plan will deliver for the environment or whether the promised allocations will be enough to ensure the survival of the river. There is no sound science to back the Murray Darling Basin Authority's initial target of 2750 GL of environmental flows. The best science we have tells us that 2750 GL would still leave threatened species in danger, risk growing salinity in lakes while condemning many wetlands, floodplains and red gum forests to a slow death.
In October, Tony Burke and Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced funding for an additional 450GL to be released by 2024. They claimed the funding demonstrated their 'determination to achieve… environmental outcomes.' To placate the powerful irrigation lobby, this extra water will mostly be delivered by funding on-farm efficiency measures, rather than more effective water buybacks. The catch is that the Plan does not guarantee that the valuable new flows will even reach the river. The legislation framed to provide the water allows for flows of 'up to' 3200 GL, not a guaranteed amount. As the Greens' Senator Sarah Hanson-Young puts it: '$11 billion of taxpayer money will be wasted' because the Plan in no way guarantees that the 3200GL will be returned to the environment by 2024.
Even if the government kept its promise to deliver 3200 GL of environmental flows, that may not be enough to return the river to health. Scientists and environmentalists have consistently argued that at least 4000 GL of environmental flows is necessary if the Plan is to meet the requirements of the Water Act that mandated it. In a recent review of the Plan, the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists highlighted that there has "never been any scientific analysis…to suggest that returning 3,200Gl of water to the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin will deliver a healthy working river system." With no certainty that extra water will flow, or that it will even be enough, the fate of the rivers remains in limbo.
Another compelling uncertainty is the impact of climate change on the Basin. CSIRO predictions from 2011 suggest that rainfall could decrease by as much as 60 per cent or increase by 40 per cent by 2070 in the Basin. Different regions will experience different effects and the changes in water availability will mean changes to how water is managed. Yet the Basin Plan doesn't take this huge variability into account, relying on historical climate data to prepare us for a volatile future. Coupled with this, the impact of increased groundwater extraction, could further affect the delivery of environmental flows. There's a huge gap between the hype and the reality of more water reaching the river.
A final, critical, grey area in the Plan is it's handling of Indigenous people's needs and values relating to water. Indigenous people across the Basin have demanded greater access to and management of water resources. Achieving water rights is vital to Aboriginal communities whose culture, spirituality and economies are entwined with the rivers on their country. In launching the Plan, Tony Burke expressed support for ongoing research into providing water allocations for Indigenous people. The Plan is prefaced with a strong acknowledgement of Indigenous knowledge and aspirations for water entitlements. But the test will be how the provisions in the Plan relating to Indigenous involvement are put into practice. A culture of paying lip service to Indigenous needs will have to be challenged and meaningful partnerships formed in the development of Water Resource and Environmental Watering Plans. The ability to achieve outcomes for Indigenous communities will be a test for the Plan and the new water regime it institutes.