At a public meeting held in Deniliquin on Thursday 9th February, participants were told by the Murray Darling Basin Authority that the environment takes precedence ahead of communities and consumptive water users.
This is a startling repudiation of the Murray Darling Basin Plan’s stated goals of achieving a “triple bottom line” outcome, communities have for a long time believed that the Authority had adopted this position, but it had never been publicly acknowledged before.
When asked to support a community request for the temporary return of unused and excess environmental water, the Executive Director River Management David Dreverman unequivocally answered, no. Neil Andrews, the current Chair of the MDBA appropriately supported his executive officer.
The questioning at the Deniliquin meeting concentrated on the volumes of water that were conveyed through the NSW river systems during the recent floods. The Authority confirmed that virtually all the environmental watering outcomes applicable for the current watering season had been achieved without the need to utilise any significant portion of the previously allocated water entitlements for environmental watering programmes.
The Authority was then asked whether it would recommend to the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH), that he make this excess water available to communities and consumptive water users? The answer was: “No, we would prefer to retain that water in order to meet our future environmental watering obligations”.
There were further questions relating to the environmental requirements of the major Redgum forests within the immediate surrounds of the Deniliquin District. These are the forests at Gulpa and Gunbower Koondrook- Perricoota and they are the major recipients of environmental watering programmes. The general consensus of the meeting was that the events of recent times would have resulted in a reduced need to water these areas in the immediate future. This claim to was rejected by the Authority.
The Authority confirmed that they saw no need to adjust future proposed environmental watering plans in response to the recent floods. This was an extraordinary statement to all those communities who have vast knowledge and practical experience of the redgum forests. The natural cycle of these regions have always involved floods and droughts. It appears that the Authority is committed to environmental watering programmes that ignores the natural cycles. These were remarkable admissions, which clearly reveal the MDBA priorities in regards to the implementation of the current Murray Darling Basin Plan.
From a personal perspective this is devastating news. I had, until now supported the need for an equitable Murray Darling Basin Plan. I had always believed that the most difficult aspect of implementing the plan would the process of transferring the large volume of water previously and currently allocated to private users back to “CEWH” In order to achieve a consensual and equitable transfer, I had hoped the CEWH would make, when appropriate (I.e. after major rain events and times of surplus) the temporary transfer of water back to consumptive users a routine and easy process.
Even if this process had been slightly skewed in favour of consumptive users during the early stages of the implementation of the plan, it would have minimised the risk to affected irrigated communities and softened the transition.
The ramifications of these public admissions by the Authority are far reaching. If the authority is to commence “piggy banking” environmental water for future usage, the serious issues involving constraints management, “carry over” entitlements and associated obligations, the loss of unused water and a plethora of other issues now arise.
At a time when the Federal Government is under severe budgetary strain it defies belief that the authority would ignore all the commercial benefits associated with sale of temporary water on the open market in order to meet some bogus future environmental outcomes that they cannot quantify and may not need.
It is outrageous that those communities that have suffered the tribulations of a devastating flood are now being denied the commercial benefits of accessing water that is surplus to current requirements.
In lieu of these revelations, how will your government propose to diminish the now real and evident socio-economic risks to vulnerable regional communities? The current plan clearly identifies towns with a particular population size and the areas that are most affected by the plan.
It is clear, that those communities and regions identified in the plan will be subjected to a range of complex, expensive and adverse issues associated with the implementation of the plan.
As the plan rolls out, this will in turn place greater strain on incumbent governments and broaden the divide between regional Australia and urban Australia and erode any residual trust in government. Everyone is aware that the political tide has turned how this will play out given the current political complexities is anyone’s guess.