The Murray-Darling basin plan to restore Australia’s biggest river system began in 2012 with support from both sides of federal politics and all four affected states. Since then, we’ve repeatedly been assured that the plan will be delivered ‘on time and in full’, but in fact the governments involved are divided, accusing each other of treachery, hurling insults and threatening to walk out.
The issue at stake is a proposal to change the environmental water recovery targets that are at the heart of the Basin Plan. Victoria and New South Wales argue that less water is needed for the environment, while South Australia wants more, and all sides are refusing to budge. It is up to the federal Senate to make the final decision on whether any changes go ahead.
Earlier this year, after receiving thousands of messages from the community, (including many Environment Victoria supporters – thank you!) the Senate rejected an amendment to cut environmental water targets for the rivers in the northern basin. This decision, made by the Greens and federal ALP with the support of the Nick Xenophon Team and Senator Hinch, was a major win for the environment, downstream users and Aboriginal people.
But now the stakes have been raised again. The Turnbull government is proposing another amendment, this time to cut water recovery in the southern basin. The Senate is due to vote on the amendment in May.
The amendment would mean less water for Victoria’s iconic rivers and the forests, wetlands and billabongs that give them life. It comes at the request of the Victorian and NSW governments, who have been pushing for various projects intended to provide the same environmental outcomes with less water.
The trouble is, we don’t know if this will work. The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists assessed all 37 projects and concluded that only one of them was fit for purpose. It’s dangerous to amend the Plan when the outcome is so uncertain. The amendment is also missing projects to increase environmental flows and get water where it is most needed.
The Andrews government has been losing focus on the environmental outcomes of the Plan and is now actively backing irrigation interests. Water Minister Lisa Neville recently told the Victorian Parliament that the government would “advocate strongly” in the irrigators’ favour.
But changes to the Basin Plan are clearly premature. The proposed projects don’t meet the conditions set by the Wentworth Group, and the parties can’t agree on a realistic pathway to delivering the 450 gigalitres (GL) of environmental flows required to restore the rivers to health. This is essential if the Plan is to be delivered ‘on time and in full’.
The Andrews government should stop focusing on the short-term interests of irrigators and look to the long-term gain that comes from healthy rivers. After all, there are no jobs on a dead river.
This article appeared in Environment Victoria News, Issue 29, Autumn 2018.
The Murray River is the lifeblood of our country – it supports our people, wildlife and economy – and it’s in serious trouble.