Blog | 19th Jul, 2019

Environment Victoria comment on open letter from scientists on the Murray-Darling Basin

Environment Victoria welcomes the heightened scrutiny of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan which has been stimulated by two Four Corners programs and a number of pieces of investigative journalism published in other media outlets. This reporting has triggered multiple investigations by government authorities, each of which have confirmed the problems originally aired in the media. This includes the Independent investigation into NSW water management and compliance by Ken Mathews AO, and the South Australian Royal Commission into the Murray-Darling.

We also welcome ongoing debate by communities and experts, including the open letter published today in The Australian by a number of academics. We agree with many points raised in the letter, particularly that the Basin Plan is not so flawed that it should be scrapped altogether. The Plan must be fixed, not scrapped, because the alternative is to return to what Prime Minister John Howard aptly described as “parochial pursuits of state interests… the tyranny of incrementalism and the lowest common denominator.” To be blunt, there is no Plan B for Australia’s most important river system. 

Nonetheless, we disagree with the claim that the ‘Cash Splash’ episode of Four Corners contains “blatant inaccuracies” and strongly urge Basin governments to commission a full independent audit of water recovery and expenditure under the Basin Plan.

The open letter makes three main claims of inaccuracies in Cash Splash, to which we respond below:

  1. The letter claims that “the emergence of new irrigation developments in the Basin does not mean that irrigators are extracting more water than they did before the Plan. Water extractions in the Basin are capped (now to a lower level than previously) and new enterprises can only be established if they purchase existing water entitlements from others.”

    Comment: while this issue was not thoroughly explained in Cash Splash, there are significant and well-known gaps in the extraction cap, which both existing and new irrigation developments may be exploiting. These include:
    • Floodplain harvesting – the trapping of water that flows across a floodplain – is poorly regulated and monitored. New floodplain dams such as those exposed by Four Corners may be capturing floodwaters that previously replenished floodplain creeks and wetlands and then flowed into downstream rivers. The overall increase in water taken by floodplain harvesting could be significant. 
    • Increased utilisation of old licences. The new floodplain dams shown on Four Corners are reportedly being used to store water under a licence type called ‘supplementary flows’, of which a large proportion have historically remained in the river where they support native fish and wetlands, for the simple reason that the farms entitled to this water had no practical way of trapping and using the majority of this water. New dams paid for with public money may now be trapping this water, leaving the river worse off. 
    • Deliberate undermining of the rules by state governments. As the original 2017 episode of Four Corners exposed, water extraction in the Darling river system appears to have increased since the Basin Plan because of changes made by the NSW government to the Barwon-Darling Water Sharing Plan. One of the key scandals exposed by the 2017 Four Corners program was that the MDBA was aware of this problem and failed to address it.
  1. The letter states “assertions that water efficiency projects funded by the Federal Government are yielding little or no water savings are not supported by available evidence.”

    Comment: we are concerned that this claim is a red herring which distracts from the very real and legitimate problems exposed by Four Corners. We are not aware of any credible voices asserting that the efficiency program is yielding “little or no savings”.

    Our concerns are that:
    • Handouts for water efficiency projects is many times more expensive than recovering the same volume of water through buybacks
    • The savings, while real, are significantly less than claimed due to the issue of return flows
    • There are multiple failures in the systems for measuring and accounting for flows throughout the basin which mean that government and the public cannot have confidence that these problems have been properly understood or addressed. 

Each of these problems are well documented, which is acknowledged in the open letter. We believe they are problems of sufficient magnitude to warrant serious public concern and media attention, because:

    • The amount of public money (over $5 billion) is significant and the question of whether sufficient public benefit has been derived is legitimate.
    • The volumes of water which the environment is being denied are significant. As the letter acknowledges, one study commissioned by the MDBA found this is volume is at least 121 billion litres a year. The academics interviewed by Four Corners argue it could be as high as 630 billion. Either way that is a lot of water.
    • By choosing to adopt the most expensive means of recovering water, the Commonwealth will exhaust its water recovery budget well before an environmentally sufficient quantity of water is recovered for the environment, meaning that the problem of over-allocation, which John Howard famously promised to solve “once and for all” through the Basin Plan, will remain with us despite $13 billion and more than a decade of action.
  1. The letter claims that “suggestions that the Basin Plan is of no environmental benefit are false”.

    Comment: Again, we are concerned that this is a red herring. We are not aware of any credible scientists asserting that the Basin Plan is providing no environmental benefit.  (although some irrigation lobbyists have attempted to use this argument to dismiss the need to return water extraction to sustainable levels). However, there is considerable documented evidence that the environmental benefits of the Basin Plan are grossly insufficient and do not meet the objectives of the Water Act, chiefly due to the fact that extraction limits (SDLs) are significantly higher than what is environmentally sustainable, a situation which is likely to worsen as climate change decreases water availability.This was a key finding of the Royal Commission and a position emphatically held by many eminent scientists including the Wentworth Group.

Aside from these three claims, the letter makes a number of statements that reinforce our concerns:

  • “Years of overallocation have severely degraded the system and climate change is making the recovery task even harder.”
  • “there should be more comprehensive and rigorous analysis of the hydrologic, ecologic, economic and social impacts of the Basin Plan”
  • “Calls for more detailed hydrologic audits have merit, but only if done systematically and patiently, becoming business as usual. In particular, the volume of extractions from floodplain harvesting must be better quantified.”
  • “active debate on the relative costs and impacts of water buy-backs and water infrastructure programs is to be welcomed.”
  • “Concerns about some perverse outcomes arising from Australia’s otherwise positive experiences in water trading are another grey area demanding sober analysis”

Finally, while we agree with the point that Water Resource Plans for each sub-basin of the MDB are critical to the success of the Basin Plan, we have serious concerns about the integrity of the Water Resource Planning system. State governments have frequently shown their willingness to undermine Sustainable Diversion Limits and protections for environmental water, while the MDBA has proven to be a weak and ineffective regulator. These issues were well documented by the South Australian Royal Commission but unfortunately its recommendations have fallen on deaf ears.