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Let's learn from the Murray in flood

A lived reality is an extremely powerful force and so it was in January 2007 at the height of the millennium drought, when PM John Howard announced a $10B water reform package for the Murray Darling River system.

While there were concerns about how water across the basin was managed, the political imperative was driven by a real concern about water security for Adelaide, a city of 1.2 million people. The situation was extremely serious.

By the time the Basin Plan became law in 2012 approximately 90% of the entitlement recovery from irrigators had already occurred and the world was a very different place; two years of record rainfall across the basin had replenished storages and widespread flooding had given the whole environment a much needed drink. Life was back to normal, except that the productive capacity of the Murray Darling irrigation communities was significantly reduced.

As quickly as the weather had turned wet, it began to turn dry again and the first real test for the new Basin Plan began. Would the now $12 billion investment in reforming water actually deliver for the environment and the people of the Murray Darling? Despite the significant water entitlements held by the Commonwealth, the dry weather saw the lower Darling River stop flowing with significant impacts for both the environment and people who rely on the river, emergency provisions were made to secure the water supply for Broken Hill and a pipeline from the Murray River to the city is under construction. Drought yet again proved to be the master when it comes to water and no amount of human intervention had any material impact on its effects. 

It doesn't matter how many entitlements are held, when it stops raining there is no water. In the Murrumbidgee River system just 58GL of Commonwealth held water was carried over into the 2016-17 water year which highlights how difficult it is to mitigate against the lack of rainfall.
Jeremy Morton, RGA President

In just a few short months we have again gone from an extremely dire situation to widespread flooding across the Murray Darling Basin. The weather always has and always will be what drives water availability across the basin and prudent management will only ever smooth out the roller coaster of availability.

The Basin Plan is yet to be completed and presents significant risks to communities with a requirement to recover 2750GL, this is despite the clear evidence that the recovery will not keep drought at bay and the flow objectives in the plan that generated the recovery target cannot be achieved without significant damage to the landscape.

In November 2012 when then Environment Minister Tony Burke addressed the National Press Club following the Basin Plan being signed into law he made some very pertinent statements about achieving flow targets and acquiring water. He talked about the practical problem of achieving flow targets and stated that "there is no point in acquiring water if you can't practically use it, no point at all." The current natural flooding is causing significant hardship and despite this, the flow targets that are described in the Basin Plan are still not being met. It doesn't get much clearer than the lived reality for the people who live along the basin rivers. The obsession with flow needs to end.

A new political imperative must be to finalise the Basin Plan without further social and economic impact on basin communities. A balanced approach to managing the Murray Darling Basin that truly embraces adaptive management is required.  It is time to move away from a plan that is about flow and water recovery targets, to a plan that genuinely delivers the environmental, social and economic outcomes that were intended. 

This blog has been written by Jeremy Morton, President of the Ricegrowers' Associaiton of Australia (RGA)

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