Blog | 4th Dec, 2015

Healthy rivers and water-smart cities should be more than a pipe-dream

As the impacts of a record El Niño compounded by climate change hit home across Victoria this year, discussion about what to do with our limited water resources is once again heating up.

Parts of Victoria are again in drought. Water earmarked for environmental use to help struggling rivers and threatened species is now in the sights of industry and governments alike. Despite a number of ‘good’ wet years, it seems to take drought-like conditions to highlight how little government water reforms have improved our rivers and wetlands since the last drought hit.

The case for an increased environmental focus on rivers and water has never been greater; just 23 percent of our rivers are in good or excellent condition, and three quarters of wetlands on private land have been lost since European settlement.

Sunday marked one year since the election of the Andrews Government. Under this government,  for the first time in seven long years, Victoria has a minister and department charged with looking after the environment, water and climate change.

Under the Brumby and Napthine / Baillieu governments, water received little environmental focus. The Victorian River Health Strategies were completely re-written, removing both the words river and health from their titles. Water was considered a commodity, with the main focus of the strategies on agriculture – Victoria’s biggest water user. The environmental value of water and the rivers we love slid even further down the priority list than before.

There was one positive step from the Coalition government when it established the Office of Living Victoria (OLV). The OLV’s aim was to work with water authorities, local government and businesses to capture and reuse stormwater, increase water recycling efforts and encourage greater use of rainwater tanks. This was in stark contrast to the previous Brumby Government’s backing of desalination and pipeline projects, which are both highly energy intensive and a massive drain on Victorian taxpayers.

The OLV was scrapped by the Andrews Government following public accusations of improper conduct, poor governance and a damning report from the Victorian Ombudsman in 2014. And regrettably the progressive agenda of water-smart towns and cities went with it.

New water reforms are on the horizon, with a proposed Victorian Water Plan planned for 2016 – the first major water reform in twelve years. This is a welcome step, but credible reforms require a strong environmental focus.

Minister Lisa Neville has stated publicly that “preserving the future of our water supplies requires a new vision and that calls for a fresh and balanced approach, starting at the top”. We wholeheartedly agree.

Early signs, however, indicate little has been learnt by the new government from previous water project failures. A recent report highlighted serious ongoing problems with Victoria’s largest water infrastructure project to modernise aging irrigation infrastructure and recover water for rivers. This $2 billion project is Victoria’s major contribution to recovering our share of water under the Murray Darling Basin Plan. Following intense lobbying from industry, the Andrews Government has already ruled out the most effective way of returning water to rivers- buy backs. This means Victoria may soon run out of water recovery options to turn around the decades of declining river health.

Public comments from the Minister Neville  supporting weakening rules around the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder-the independent overseer of environmental water in the Murray Darling Basin- is another disappointment.

Recent media comments regarding water grids and piping water over the dividing range, this time sending water north from the desalination plant, also fall into the engineering  ‘hard hat’ mentality.

Government departments, and the water industry appear to have not yet shaken their addiction to all things infrastructure related.

Environment Victoria’s soon to be released report Six Steps to Water Leadership: The path to healthy rivers and sustainable water use in Victoria presents a new way forward for Victoria, rather than a rehash of these old, and often bad ideas.

We propose strong support for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan to deliver water for northern Victoria’s River Red Gum national parks. Water is essential to keep these wetlands healthy.

We envision a state-wide plan for water-sensitive towns and cities, capturing storm water and reusing every last drop.

We need a proper independent investigation into the management of Victorian rivers, wetlands, groundwater and estuaries to ensure governments and communities have the best available information.

We’re looking to the promised Riparian Action Plan to be a strong plan that improves river corridors and restores river banks by getting cattle out of rivers and streams, and we need laws that ensure our rivers get the fair share of water they need to remain healthy.

The Andrews government can be a leader on water. But leadership will mean putting the environmental focus back on rivers and water that has been missing for so long.

One year in, the environment has been noticeably absent from the state government’s approach to water. We remain positive this will change. Our new Minister can start by pushing back on the pipelines and pumps of old, and deliver reforms that both recognise the impacts of climate change on water resources and improve the health of Victoria’s rivers.

Environment Victoria’s new report proposes a fresh and balanced approach.  It provides the foundation for a Victorian water plan that will deliver significant improvements in how rivers and water are managed across our great state, both during droughts and well beyond.