This might seem like a distant concern, given all the recent rain in Melbourne, but northern and western Victoria have had well below average rainfall over the past year, and farmers are feeling the pinch even before this El Nino kicks in. John Vanston, a sheep farmer near Bendigo, recently told The Age that the conditions are similar to 1982, which was another strong El Nino year.
With politicians of all stripes recognising the importance of healthy rivers to communities and agriculture as well as wildlife and the environment, previous El Nino events have spurred action. At the height of the millennium drought, when the entire Murray system was almost dead, former Prime Minister John Howard set a process in motion to create a Murray-Darling Basin Plan. This national Plan is intended to reduce the amount of water that was being taken out of rivers, so that their health improves and the impact of drought is lessened in future. The most cost-effective way to return water to rivers is to buy it off willing sellers. This process transfers water from consumptive use to the environment and puts cash into the pockets of farmers – a win for everyone!
Unfortunately this time round, it seems like the political appetite for action has dried up. Consistent with their general antagonism towards all areas of environment policy, the Abbott Government is threatening to restrict the amount of water that can be bought back for stressed rivers. This means that the government will have to rely on expensive infrastructure investment to do the heavy lifting. The issue here is that the plan was never meant to work this way, and without additional funding the money is likely to run out before our rivers get what they need.
Given the gaining strength of the current El Nino, this means efforts to save our rivers are in danger of being driven right back to square one.
So what can we do about it? Next week federal and state water ministers are getting together to discuss progress on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and the proposed restriction on water buybacks. It’s an ideal opportunity for Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville to show leadership and stand up for a Plan that gives our rivers the water they need to be healthy. That means rejecting the cap, using tax payers’ money in the most effective way possible (which is buying back water) and making sure our rivers, wetlands and wildlife get the fair share they deserve.