Industry responds to SA Basin Plan Royal Commission

Yesterday the South Australian Royal Commission report into the Murray Darling Basin was released causing wide-spread controversy.

The report was initiated after concerns from the SA Government regarding water theft allegations.

“The 746 page report makes 44 recommendations, 111 findings, and contains complex legal and water policy issues,” South Australian Premier Steven Marshall said.

The Murray Darling Basin Plan is more than half-way complete and is set to be in fully implemented by 2024.

What is the Murray Darling Basin Plan?

The Murray Darling Basin Plan, which was passed into law in November 2012, provides a co-ordinated approach to water use across the Murray Darling Basin’s four states (NSW, VIC, SA and QLD) and the ACT. The Plan is due for full implementation by 2024.

The Basin Plan aims to balance social, economic and environmental considerations by setting water use to an environmentally sustainable level.

At the heart of the Basin Plan is the need to increase the amount of water for the environment and ensuring sufficient water for all user’s needs.

The report

Commissioner Bret Walker SC stated in the report that Commonwealth officials committed “maladministration” and called for a complete overhaul of the Murray Darling Basin Plan, including reallocating water from irrigation farming to the environment.

The report found that “regrettably, from prior to the time of the enactment of the basin plan, the MDBA has shown itself to be unwilling or incapable of acting lawfully”.

Upon initial review from the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF), President Fiona Simson noted that the report focuses on the legal validity of the Plan.

“This validity issue is a matter that will need to be resolved through appropriate processes, we note that Solicitor General advice at the time maintains a different view,” Ms Simson said.

“The presumption that the plan is not legally valid flows through to a number of recommendations, which cannot be progressed until or if the validity is resolved.”

The Commissioner acknowledged that it will be commercially attractive to utilise allocated water to grow irrigated crops such as cotton and rice and recognises that this is the market at work.

The plan has had at least 35 reviews, 14 of which were independent, since its inception in 2012. The plan is just over half way through and already over 2,000 GL of water has been acquired for the environment that was not available pre plan.

The full list of Murray Darling Basin inquiries since 2012 can be found here.

Ms Simson stated that the NFF is urging decision makers to focus on the future, and that is delivering on the plan that is bipartisan and maintains the support of the six governments who have a direct interest.

“The plan has always been a compromise, despite this it should be implemented. This is a once in a generation reform, and will take a generation to achieve. It deserves the ongoing support of all Australians,” Ms Simson said.

What about the fish deaths?

The report did not address the Menindee fish deaths after the SA Government refused the Commissioner’s request to look at the issue.

The fish deaths below the Menindee Lake occurred due to an apparent “perfect storm of events“.

According to environmental experts, the fish deaths occurred because of a cold snap killed the algal blooms, which deoxygenated the water.

There can be no doubt the lack of water in the system above Menindee is a significant contributor.

“The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) reports that over the past 21 months several areas in the northern basin have received rainfall to the tune of the lowest on record,” NFF Water Taskforce chair Les Gordon said.

“The BOM’s annual climate statement lists 2018 as Australia’s third warmest on record, and for NSW the sixth driest on record.”

Menindee Lake, NSW.

The most recent fish kill tragedy encouraged an emotive and controversial comment by Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, which was called out to be inaccurate by the NFF.

“Senator Hanson-Young continues to try and gain notoriety by treading a dangerous and destructive line of sensationalised stories that suit her own agenda of making agriculture obsolete,” Mr Gordon said.

“She ignores the fact that a key driver of fish deaths is water availability, which is scarce due to the drought. She sadly expects people to believe that the significant (around 90%) water levels in the Lower Lakes in South Australia is not linked to the quantity of water upstream.

“Finally she would have the community believe that water for some regions such as the Menindee can somehow be magically delivered to solve the problem.”

Reviewing the Plan

On 25 January the Murray Darling Basin Productivity Commission five yearly review was publicly released, which addressed the issue of the fish deaths.

The review made recommendations which involve incremental improvements to the current arrangements. The recommendations aim to strengthen the value of the environmental planning which will further enhance environmental outcomes.

The review addresses a number of current concerns including: management of resources during low flows (a contributor to the recent Menindee fish death event); governance of the Basin (there are recommendations regarding splitting the Murray-Darling Basin Authority); and recovering the remainder of environmental water.

“The review of the implementation of the plan contains reflections and recommendations that can be progressed immediately and is a much more proactive, balanced and robust report,” Ms Simson said.

“It has been a real achievement for Basin Governments to get this far, but without the recommended changes, the implementation of the Plan is at risk.”

Delivering on the objectives of the Plan is vital to a region that is of significant environmental, cultural, social and economic importance to Australia.

Andrea Martinello

Andrea Martinello

Andrea is the Community & Engagement Officer at the National Farmers' Federation.

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