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Murray-Darling authority’s revised plan: expert reactions

Tug of water: the Murray-Darling Basin is fraught with competing interests. AAP/Lukas Coch

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) today released a revised plan that recommends cutting the volume of groundwater to be extracted, in a variety of changes following 20 weeks of consultations.

The Conversation has rounded up expert opinions and will add to them as they arrive. For your further persusal, here is the revised plan, and here is a summary of the changes from the draft released in November last year.

Associate Professor Caroline A. Sullivan

Director of Research, School of Environment, Science and Engineering, Southern Cross University

Water is the lifeblood of any economy, and without doubt, this is true, not just in the Murray Darling Basin, but in all major river basins in the world. Few other river basins however have been the subject of such intense research and policy discourse as that which has been applied to this king of Australian rivers.

While a key sticking point in this legislative process has been around the amount of water needed to secure the ecology of the river, the loudest voices of all have been those expressing concern over the potential economic impacts of the proposed measures. Certainly, hundreds of communities depend on the basin water resources, but more importantly, the health of the river itself and its ability to provide its ecological services into the future, also depends on the allocations made through this intensely political process.

As with most environmental management challenges, the issues around the way we allocate water are extremely complex. While there are still many areas of uncertainty in our scientific knowledge relating to this problem, there is a need to move forward, and take action even though our knowledge base is less than perfect. For the MDBA in particular, one major area of uncertainty arises from our lack of understanding of the links between ground and surface water, and the myriad of factors that determine how human decisions impact on the vitally important groundwater resources of the basin.

The inclusion of groundwater is indeed welcome and necessary, but it is important that we don’t fall into the very common trap of “out of sight, out of mind”. This is one particular area where the need for an adaptive management approach is vital, so that if evidence arises indicating a negative impact on the basin’s groundwater reserves, measures can be taken quickly to reverse any negative trend. By ensuring an adaptive approach, it is possible that the policy can remain flexible and can respond to changing natural conditions. This is particularly important when we consider the possible impact of more extreme climate events. In the case of above average rainfall, for example, less allocation to the environment may be needed, while in times of drought, the environmental allocations become more crucial to the maintenance of overall river health.

With the release of the revised basin plan today, the MDBA has no doubt tried to demonstrate its good intensions, by modifying some of its methods and approaches, and clarifying issues of concern with a myriad of stakeholders. Great efforts have been made to increase the transparency of the process, with detailed documentation provided to highlight specific changes made to the plan, as a result of the thousands of submissions gathered over the 20-week consultation period. The reorganisation of the water allocations in the basin is part of a structural adjustment process, and just like any other structural change in the economy, this process will inevitably bring some strain.

What is important now however is to remember that the river itself is a stakeholder, and while its needs may be highlighted by ecologists and others, it is up to us as a society, to recognise that these needs must be met. The ethically correct course of action is not one which maximises our economic benefits, but one which maximises and secures long-term human wellbeing from a well-managed and healthy environment. As in any decision over ecological resources, long term outcomes must take precedence over short term ones. Ecological adaptation takes much longer than human adaptation, and so long term ecological processes must be respected within any basin management plan.

While we cannot foretell the future, we do know that the future is almost certainly not going to be the same as the past, so new approaches must be used to deal with new conditions. With continued active inputs from a wide stakeholder base, in the true spirit of stakeholder-moderated adaptive management, it is just possible that this plan may be able to ensure a healthy future for both the basin, and its people. The rivers of the Murray Darling basin have been flowing for thousands of years. We must make sure that they continue to do so into the future, by maintaining an ethically correct course of action. If ethics can trump economics in the Murray Darling basin, Australia as a nation will be remembered for taking action to proactively address one of the most serious global challenges of the 21st century.

The Darling River at Menindee, far western NSW, where Burke and Wills set up a base in 1860. Flickr/amandabhslater

Jonathan Sobels

Lecturer, Human Geography, Flinders University

I am struck by the fascinating insight provided to us by the MDBA “Summary of Changes” document. It provides an example of the power of words can be used or abused in communication of complex ideas and scenarios, in this case, by a statutory authority. What it shows is that people greatly disliked having to make assumptions about the Plan because the text was vague or ambiguous or both. If people become uncertain because of this ambiguity, trust in the message or messenger is reduced, leading to greater bureaucracy and/or free-riding as loop-holes are exploited.

So in this document, in the column headed “Reason for Change”, “clarity” is used 120 times; “improve clarity” is used 77 times; and “consistency” is used 31 times. This is evidence that the MDBA has listened to those who made submissions, and taken action. This should increase the level of trust in the overall document since many people believe that “the devil is in the detail”, withholding acceptance of the Plan.

Now, with much more detail about assumptions and better clarity of expression, there is more detail available for scrutiny and hence more reason to accept or reject the Plan. This is a good thing! For example, there is explicit recognition in Chapter 5, Section 02.2 of what constitutes a healthy river system and that the Murray Mouth is an integral part of this consideration:

“ that a healthy river system includes (2) The outcome for the Basin Plan as a whole is a healthy and working Murray Darling Basin that includes:

(a) communities with sufficient and reliable water supplies that are fit for a range of intended purposes, including domestic, recreational and cultural use; and

(b) productive and resilient water-dependent industries, and communities with confidence in their long term future; and

(c) healthy and resilient ecosystems with rivers and creeks regularly connected to their floodplains and, ultimately, the ocean”.

And although there should be a minimum of ambiguity about the meaning of a text, that does not mean that the text specifies absolute values or tasks. The text may allow for local variation and context, so long as this meaning is made explicit, that is, not assumed. See for example, Chapter 7, section 7:28(old)/7:50(new) – “This provision has been added to clarify that the method can be applied flexibly, as appropriate.” Much more realistic.

In summary, a much better quality document which will, I hope, make determination of SDLs a more nuanced calculation. The MDBA have done a good job in introducing much greater clarity, in using percentages alongside Gigalitres, in specifying how much water is already accounted for, and in the mechanisms surrounding the operation of the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder and water markets more generally.

The Murray-Darling’s southern system: Coorong at the Mundoo Channel in South Australia. Flickr/Inspirational Cinema

Professor Paul Martin

Director, Australian Centre for Agriculture and Law, University of New England

Whilst there is a lot of attention to the politics and conflict over the plan, we should bear in mind that Australia is making pioneering steps in trying to bring its water consumption back to more sustainable levels. What those sustainable levels are, and the compromises involved in making this all work, is hotly contested but should not hide the magnitude of what is being achieved. However there are also major lessons that can be learned, and one of the lessons should be that the “architecture” of the Water Act itself was (and is) one of the impediments to progress.

Whilst it is appealing to believe that an approach where “best available science” sets the limits, and owners of rights then trade to achieve an efficient outcome, that is not a sufficient basis for such legislation. For many social and justice issues there is no consensus about best available science, and the methods used often cannot reflect the complexities and dynamics of the issues. Models wash this out, but politics ensures that the issues remain vitally relevant.

The way the law was designed left little or no room in practice to achieve the “optimisation” of other values because it did not allow for the legitimate conflicts within society to be managed. It seemed to assume that conflict was only over environment and property rights, but it is clear that there are many more considerations. I think what was demonstrated by the socio-economic failings in the process is that the initial design of the legislation built in many of the the intractible conflicts that emerged, rather than helping to deal with them.

River life amidst policy battles. Flickr/Inspirational Cinema

Dr Jamie Pittock

Research Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.

For conservation of declining river systems the revised proposed Basin Plan is little improved on the draft released last year. My research has looked at three aspects of water management in the Basin: will sufficient areas of each types of wetland habitat be conserved, can the amount of water required be reduced by using “environmental works and measures” and will the impacts of climate change be ameliorated by better management through the Plan? The answer to all three questions is no.

Conserving the full range of flora and fauna

There are many different types of wetlands in the Basin, such as Redgum and Black Box floodplain forests. The Authority has not used the available floodplain inundation and climate change models to say what areas of each wetland type will be conserved with the modest volumes of water they propose to reallocate to the environment versus those wetlands that will be left dry and will die. The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and others have used the Authority’s data to detail particular types of wetlands that will be stranded on areas of the floodplain that environmental water will not reach. This is inconsistent with Australia’s obligations under the two treaties that underpin the Water Act and Basin Plan, namely the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and Convention on Biological Diversity which require conservation of a representative selection of each type of ecosystem.

Environmental works and measures

Instead the Authority proposes greater use if engineering measures like pumps, canals, weirs and levee banks – called “environmental works and measures” – to spread less water over a larger area of wetlands. While superficially this sounds smart in fact there are many reasons to be alarmed at this approach. Only a very small portion of the Basin’s wetlands can be managed in this way (only 0.6% with $235 million spent so far). The engineering works may maintain some Redgum trees but may have other negative environmental impacts, for instance, harming native fish and making water quality worse. Most importantly this approach may reduce the water available to wetlands not targeted by the engineering works by directly blocking water flows and by giving politicians an excuse to reallocate less water to the rivers. Finally these measures require skilled people to operate them and it is doubtful that state governments will pay for the managers required forever.

Climate change

The engineering works are particularly vulnerable to changes in the amount of water in the rivers due to climate change. It is expected that the amount of water in the southern Basin will be reduced with climate change, and there may be more frequent, extreme floods and droughts. It appears that the Authority can only think of one response to climate change which is to reallocate water. While it is important to provide more water for the environment using only this one tool is risky, especially given that Victoria and New South Wales cancelled environmental flow agreements during the last drought. There are many other climate change adaptation measures that are also required and would spread risk that the Authority has overlooked. These include protecting the remaining un-dammed rivers in the Basin, re-engineering dams to enable fish passage and fixing dam discharges to release water at more natural temperatures. The Authority proposes to review water allocations in 2015. Regular review is welcome but we know enough to act more boldly now and 2015 is too soon to have learnt anything much new on how the Plan may work in the context of climate change.

Science is not a barrier to a better Basin Plan. Our governments should further revise this draft Plan to include many additional measures needed to better conserve the Basin’s rivers.

Riverbank fauna at Blanchetown, South Australia. Flickr/Inspirational Cinema

Professor John Quiggin

Professor Quiggan is an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow in the school of economics at the University of Queensland and has been working on the problems of the Murray Darling Basin since the early 1980s.

The central problem in water policy is not the volume of water to be restored to the Basin but the way in which this water is to be obtained. The disastrous failure of the Draft Basin Plan reflected the view of the MDBA that such issues were outside its remit, even though the Commonwealth government had already guaranteed that there would be no compulsory acquisitions, let alone uncompensated “cuts” in allocations. Two years later, and buried in the “mythbusting” section, we finally have a clear statement that “No-one in the Basin will be forced to give up their water entitlements as a result of the Basin Plan either in the 7 years before the plan is fully implemented or after 2019. If you own a water entitlement, it is up to you whether you sell or keep your water.” If this had been the opening line of the Guide to the Draft Basin Plan, a great deal of grief would have been avoided.

Unfortunately, progress on this front is offset by the disastrous recommendation that “water be recovered as much as possible through infrastructure upgrades rather than buybacks”. Experience has shown that the water savings from infrastructure upgrades are rarely cost-effective. This isn’t surprising given that the existing trading system provides strong incentives to farmers and infrastructure operators to undertake any upgrades that yield water savings with a value in excess of the cost. So, there is no need for government to subsidise infrastructure upgrades.“

With help from the Australian Science Media Centre.

Comments welcome below.

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