Opposing river reform puts us on a slow boat to nowhere
The release of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s guide to the Basin Plan has ignited discussion about how we manage this critical system for the long term. It has been disappointing to see over recent weeks the Coalition now walking away from reform in the basin, reform that even the previous Howard Government saw as necessary.
Coalition members are now arguing that taking action in the basin will be tantamount to choosing the environment over rural communities. This argument is based on a false dichotomy. Reforming the Murray Darling system is not a choice between the interests of producers and the environment- reform is in the interest of all those who rely on this vital river system, to secure its long-term health and viability. Indeed the aim of the Water Act is to manage our water resources in such a way as to optimise environmental, economic and social outcomes.
The worst thing that could happen for everyone in the Basin, whether it’s someone who cares about the environmental assets of the river system or a farmer wanting to continue to make a sustainable living, is for the Government to do nothing. An unmanaged and unhealthy water supply is no use to anyone.
Take for example the issues of salinity and poor water quality in the basin. Water quality degradation in this river system is caused by a number of factors such as the production of toxins by blue-green algal blooms exacerbated by low inflows, erosion, turbidity, clearing of vegetation and the natural occurrence of large quantities of salt.
In particular, high salinity levels can radically alter the composition of localised and down-stream ecosystems, and the consequences of this for the over-all health of the river system are severe.
Frequent and extended rises in salinity levels cause damage to the eco-system of the river and, ultimately, reduce the suitability of water for both drinking and irrigation purposes.
The Lower Lakes in South Australia provide an unsettling reminder of what can happen to primary production as a result of poor water quality. Over recent years, dairy operations in South Australia who have relied on water from the Lower Lakes have been decimated by high salinity levels in the system. This has resulted in the reduction of local dairy operations from 23 to 3, and this example clearly demonstrates that an unhealthy river reduces the capacity for agricultural production.
Water from the Murray-Darling Basin is used for a variety of purposes including the supply of drinking water, recreational use and agriculture. Without appropriate salinity and water quality management, this precious resource will cease to facilitate any such activities.
If we allow water quality degradation to continue and ignore the need for effective management of salinity levels, then the health of this vital river system will rapidly deteriorate and the impact of this on the environment, human consumption, and agriculture alike will be devastating.
The Murray Darling Basin Authority Guide to the Proposed Basin Plan has been independently drafted to bring our basin back to health. The Authority will conduct public consultation on the Draft Guide to the Plan over the next 12 months, and there is no doubt there will be adjustments made to the plan in light these consultations; however there is no denying that a mix of measures will be needed to return the basin to health.
This will involve the purchase of water for increased environmental flows, investment in water saving infrastructure, placing sustainable limits on the quantity of water removed from the Basin and strategic management of water quality. Some of these principles of reform have already been adopted and implemented as part of the Government’s Water for the Future initiative such as buying water and investment in irrigation infrastructure, but there is still more to be done.
Reform will require difficult decisions to be made because, putting it simply, there is just not enough water to go around.
For the last century we have treated the Murray Darling system as an unlimited resource and we are now paying the price. Reform is not a choice between the environment and rural communities – it is a choice between a sustainable healthy river and a dying river in decline.
Reform is critical. I hope that Coalition members will stop their political opportunism and work constructively on this issue so that future generations may too enjoy this precious resource.
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