This thing called life

Who will tell us if environmental programs in the Murray Darling Basin work?

Infrastructure, like the Hume Dam on the Murray River, is supported, but research on its impacts is not. Geoff Edney

I welcome yesterday’s announcement that the Victorian government will continue to contribute to the Murray Darling Basin Authority. Recent cuts by the New South Wales and South Australian governments have already had an impact on research capacity in the region.

The future of the environment in the Murray Darling Basin will be at risk if it is driven by politics alone. We need evidence and sound scientific analysis to ensure that the decisions we are making are responsive to the needs of society and the environment.

It is hard to follow the logic of water policy in Australia, because each pile of money is announced as if it is a separate, stand alone project. In 2008 the Water for the Future program was set up with $12 billion to reduce water use with the goal of recovering environmental water. More recently, $1.77 billion was set aside to recover additional environmental water, while The Living Murray program has invested $287.9 million to deliver and manage environmental water delivery to five of the six Living Murray icon sites.

When funds were cut to the Murray Darling Basin Authority, what was at risk is the ability to oversee these various projects and how they interact, and the capacity to do research on the ongoing health and sustainability of the basin.

The Murray Darling Freshwater Research Centre (MDFRC) is based on La Trobe University campuses in Wodonga and Mildura. My own department works closely with the researchers in the centre: co-supervising PhD and Honours students, providing advice to water managers, contributing to outreach programs for young people, and monitoring the success of water releases and other government initiatives.

The MDFRC has provided expert scientific advice to water managers for 25 years, and the staff have become adept at responding to queries for research on the impact of drought, salinity, algal blooms, acidic soils and blackwater events. When they are not reacting to environmental crises, they are quietly amassing data that has the best chance of informing Australians about how to manage the precious water resources in the Murray Darling Basin.

Recent cuts have put the Murray Darling Research Centre at risk. They may soon lose up to 80% of their capacity. By capacity we mean staff, many of whom have extensive expert knowledge of the basin. These long term researchers know how to get the river research done, which is not just another government desk job. From running electrophoresis boats to predicting the state of muddy roads to being able to identify thousands of freshwater species, the expertise and knowledge required would take years to replace.

It is ironic that opposition to the Murray Darling Basin plan has made it harder to do research on the Murray Darling Basin. At a time when detailed analyses of the options are critical, and when the benefits of a healthy river are more apparent than ever before, disagreements about the role and future of the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) have limited our research capacity. Yes, there have been job losses in the recent past, and the MDFRC is bracing itself for more to come.

And yet these people give us the best chance of spending the billions of dollars committed to environmental works wisely. For some reason it is easy to find money to spend on infrastructure, but hard to find money to pay the salaries of people who can tell us the impact of that spending. In years to come, Australians will want to know the payoff from our investments in environmental water management, but we are at risk of cutting the funding that supports the monitoring that will allow us to answer those questions.

Some people think that environmental water will be taken from the river at the cost of communities that depend on the river. This makes no sense to me. Environmental water ensures the future of the river, and hence the communities that rely on it.

The researchers whose jobs are at risk are not statistics to me. They are my colleagues, people with families who live along the Murray River and love it. They are also farmers and fishers and friends. The communities they live in will be harmed in several ways if the MDFRC does not continue. Job losses always have an impact in regional communities, but these will also harm the delivery of knowledge to those communities and put them at further risk of unsustainable practices at all levels of government. Catchment Management Authorities, Landcare Groups and fisheries organisations rely on the MDFRC to answer important questions and provide sensible advice.

The MDFRC is a joint venture between the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), La Trobe University and CSIRO, with additional funding from the Federal Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Populations and Communities, or SEWPaC.

Continued funding of this centre is critical. Thanks to Peter Walsh, the Victorian Water Minister for not cutting his state’s contribution to the MDBA. Please lobby your politicians in other states and federally to follow his lead.