From mass fish deaths to water buybacks and the release of the SA Royal Commission Murray-Darling Basin Report in January this year, the Murray-Darling Basin has struggled to stay out of the national spotlight in recent months.
With the federal election less than a week away, here’s what the Greens, the Liberal-National Coalition and the Labor Party want to see prioritised when it comes to one of Australia’s most important river systems.
Greens leader Richard Di Natale has said:
The Murray-Darling is our nation’s food bowl. The river is central to Aboriginal culture. It has outstanding environmental significance and is a key water source for South Australia, including many regional towns and cities.
$13 billion of taxpayers’ money was meant to go towards saving the river.
Now the SA Royal Commission has reported its findings, and the failure of policy and government has been laid bare, there is no choice other than a Federal Royal Commission to properly investigate this matter.
Policy points: establish a national royal commission; overhaul the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, placing the environment at the core; ensure that any future modelling is done in the context of climate change; ban corporate irrigator donations to political parties; and, ensure that any new plan delivers water buybacks to ensure proper environmental flows.
Minister for Agriculture and Water David Littleproud has said:
We’ve made significant inroads in delivering water back to the Murray-Darling Basin, with the recent [Productivity Commission] review finding nearly all of the 20% of productive water, which needed to be recovered for the environment, has been.
We’ve also taken big steps forward on compliance, which was indeed an issue in the Basin. Nobody who is doing the right thing has anything to fear from compliance. NSW has taken the issue seriously and real progress is being made.
For the first time we have bipartisan agreement, between states and the Commonwealth, on how to return water to the Basin. This has come about through leadership and goodwill; not through fighting. As a Basin MP myself, as we experience a second serious drought this century in large parts of the Basin, I continue to hope for serious rain.
Policy points: continue to advance the Plan as it stands; and maintain bipartisanship between states.
In a letter to the Australian Water Association, the Labor party set out its plans for the Murray-Darling Basin, writing:
Labor will establish a Commission of Inquiry into the 2017 purchase of certain water entitlements from Eastern Australia Agriculture Pty Ltd, under the Royal Commissions Act. Labor will also commission an independent review, by the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC), into the governance and conduct of the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), to report to Government within six months.
Labor will move the MDBA’s compliance division into the newly created federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Labor have already introduced legislation to repeal Barnaby Joyce’s 1500GL cap on buybacks. In addition, we have committed to:
- Restoring the integrity of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority by moving its compliance functions to the Environmental Protection Agency and ordering a formal review of claims public servants acted unlawfully.
- Requiring the Basin Authority to update the science.
- An urgent review of climate change impacts on the Basin now and into the future to determine any change in inflows and evaporation rates.
- Urgently renegotiating the Menindee agreement, which determines how the lakes are managed and is now decades out of date.
Labor will introduce stricter penalties for non-compliance and water theft, and our policy will be “no meter no pump” across the entire Basin. Labor will also provide $52 million to improve monitoring, metering and measurement of the health of the Basin in real time, and to upgrade Geoscience Australia’s remote sensing technology. We will reinstate the Sustainable Rivers Audit as part of this $52 million investment.
Labor will work to make the MDBA more transparent by giving the public access to real time metering and monitoring, to federal modelling, details of supply projects and all relevant information as it becomes available. Labor will audit floodplain harvesting and crack down on illegal structures that have been built in the Basin to divert water. This work will be informed by the work of the Northern Basin Commissioner and the reviews into fish kills in the Darling, south of Menindee.
Labor will provide $10 million to help restock rivers and lakes with native fish species across the basin and establish new hatcheries in the northern basin to kick start fish recovery. Labor will allocate over $5 million for the river connections and potential connections, for example the Warrego and Darling Rivers (as recommended by the Vertessy report) or the Lachlan and Murrumbidgee.
Labor will increase First Nations peoples’ engagement in decision making and governance arrangements for the Murray Darling Basin including, in consultation with First Nations peoples, supporting increasing Board membership. Labor will also provide an additional $50 million for cultural water and establish a National Indigenous Water Committee.
These commitments are in addition to a number of Government-announced initiatives, which Labor supports:
- A new fishway at Menindee main weir and the removal of the Menindee old town weir to improve fish movement through the river system.
- Upgrades to two fishways and construction of a new fishway on the Lower Darling River below Menindee Lakes.
- Construction of a fishway between Frenchman’s Creek and Lake Victoria to enable better fish passage along the Murray River.
- $30 million with New South Wales to replace Wilcannia Weir and include a fishway that improves connectivity along that stretch of the Barwon-Darling River.
- $180 million for Queensland and New South Wales to implement the northern Basin’s toolkit measures to improve environmental outcomes in the northern Basin including protection of environmental water and works that promote fish health.
- $3 million for a research program on ecosystem functions in the Murray Darling Basin.
- $10 million Murray Darling Basin Environmental Water Knowledge and Research Project with the Basin states to inform environmental water management decisions with improved understanding of ecological responses.
The Australian Water Association has also written to the Coalition and the Greens, to request their responses and policies on a number of subjects, including the Murray-Darling Basin.
A version of this story was first published as ‘Turbid waters’ in Current magazine April 2019.