The stream of scandals surrounding the Murray-Darling Basin seems never ending.
In the last couple of years, we’ve had accusations of water theft, meter tampering and dodgy deals that siphon off billions of litres meant to flow downstream. Now Four Corners has revealed that taxpayer dollars intended to fix our rivers are ending up in the pockets of large corporate irrigators.
Meanwhile our rivers are drying up, our fish are dying by the millions and our unique wetland forests, the Kakadus of the south, are really struggling. The Murray is in crisis after years of maladministration, negligence and potentially unlawful conduct by the officials and politicians we’ve entrusted to protect it.
It’s time to stop the rorts and focus on reviving our rivers, to support the family farmers, people and wildlife on the frontlines of dealing with the climate crisis. Sign our petition to Water Ministers demanding a full, independent audit of the Basin Plan.
Unfortunately, the corrupting influence of vested interests is nothing new to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Here’s some background on the Murray-Darling river system and the landmark bipartisan plan to return it to health.
The mighty Murray – and the rivers that flow into it – are struggling to survive. Devastating drought in NSW and Queensland, along with dodgy rules that allow irrigators to pump the river dry, have reduced the iconic Darling River to a series of stagnant, putrid pools where native fish are literally gasping for breath.
The Murray itself turned putrid green from an algal bloom for over 1,000km from Albury to Mildura in 2016. Officials are treating it less and less as the natural, wonderful, beautiful river we all know it as, and more as an irrigation water delivery channel.
The simple truth is that we are taking too much water out of our rivers, year after year, and it has terrible consequences. Here in Victoria, 75 percent of our wetlands have disappeared, native fish numbers have dropped by 90 percent and our unique red gum forests are struggling to survive. Something has to change.
Fortunately the problem was recognised by none other than former Prime Minister John Howard himself. On Australia Day 2007, at the height of the Millennium drought, he announced a $10 billion national plan for water security. “The old way of managing the Murray-Darling Basin has reached its use by date,” he said. “The tyranny of incrementalism and the lowest common denominator must end.”
After several years of hard work, negotiation and controversy, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was finally agreed between Victoria, NSW, South Australia and Queensland and passed by the Commonwealth Parliament in 2012. It mandates the return of 2,750 gigalitres (GL) of water from consumptive use to the environment by 2019, with a provision for an additional 450 GL to be returned in 2024.
Is it enough to fix the problems of the Murray? Not altogether, but if the Basin Plan is fully implemented it will make a huge difference to fish species and waterbirds and will allow for at least some flooding of the red gum forests and wetlands. To date around 1,950 GL of water have been recovered for the environment and the benefits can already be seen.
Is it plain sailing from here? Absolutely not! While the partner governments remain committed to implementing the Basin Plan “on time and in full” there are big differences between them on what that actually means.
The Plan allows for the volume of water recovery to be changed so long as ‘equivalent’ environmental outcomes are achieved. As the result of a strong push from upstream states and irrigator lobby groups the water recovery target has been significantly reduced. Governments prefer to put their faith in infrastructure projects to reduce losses and deliver water to isolated sections of the floodplain. The additional 450 GL for the environment remains a distant dream.
The Basin Plan is also consistently undermined and misrepresented by interest groups and politicians. It is used as a convenient scapegoat for every problem affecting irrigated agriculture, from rising water prices to job losses and faltering communities. Environmental water recovery is getting harder and harder and despite the comforting words of Ministers it has slowed to a trickle.
While the Plan is undoubtedly having an impact on some communities, it is bringing $13 billion of investment into regional Australia to make irrigation more sustainable. It’s the biggest investment in the future of agriculture in Australia’s history. Even more importantly, the Plan is improving the health of the rivers on which we all depend. It is in all our interests to see it succeed.
We are working hard with partner groups to ensure the Basin Plan delivers on its promise. It’s the best chance we have to improve the health of the once-mighty Murray and with your help we’ll make sure it succeeds.