Submission to Murray-Darling Basin Authority Proposed Guide Draft to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan
It has long been agreed that there needs to be a water plan which satisfies the triple bottom line approach, taking in the social, economic and environmental implications of any reform.
Our nation should not, cannot and must not implement water reform which does not meet all three of these important objectives.
Neither the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA)’s 8 October 2010 Guide nor the 28 November 2011 Draft to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan met these imperatives.
The initial Guide was rejected by many because it contained inaccuracies, failed to take into account valuable data collected and research undertaken at great expense by the States over many years and exposed an unacceptable lack of consultation with key stakeholders and people in regional communities most affected.
Put simply, the Draft is little improvement, as it ignores the following:
· The call to recover water from works and measures – gaining the benefits of the $5.8 billion set aside for infrastructure in the 2007 Water Act;
· The passionate and well-reasoned appeals put forward by farmers, by businesspeople, by country mayors, by boys and girls ... by ordinary, everyday Australians... not to take productive water out of the system thereby condemning rural towns to a death literally by a thousand (water) cuts;
· The fact the greatest moral challenge of our times will be to feed our growing population and that of neighbouring Asian and Pacific countries into the future;
· The real and lasting savings already achieved by water-conscious communities and individuals up and down the Basin;
· The lack of justification for a further 2750 gigalitres to be allocated to so-called environmental needs and icon site – How will this water be used? Why is it required? What method will be used to get it to the 2442 environmental assets listed?
· The failure to include recent floods and better-than-average rainfall years in the hydrological data upon which the Plan will be based. The figures used by the MDBA to calculate the average inflows into the Murray-Darling take a simple average from 114 years of data, extending from 1895 (Federation Drought) to 2009 (Millennium Drought) but do not take into account the significant wet weather events of October 2010 to March 2012.
Any Plan for water reform must consider, in the national interest, the people who put the food on our plates and the clothes on our backs.
The first and most important job Australia has as a nation is to feed its people. The Australian Farm Institute says that every Griffith farmer feeds 150 Australians and 450 foreigners every year. How can they be expected to fulfil this role if they do not have sufficient water to grow food –the freshest and best food –for which local farmers are renowned?
The year 2012 is the centenary of irrigation farming in the Murrumbidgee.
The Riverina is one of the greatest food and fibre producing regions of Australia yet this has not been properly considered nor recognised by the MDBA to this point in time.
One of the key recommendations in the May 2011 House of Representatives Standing Committee on Regional Australia’s report Of Drought and flooding rains: Inquiry into the impact of the Guide to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan (Recommendation 7) being: “The Committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government immediately cease all non-strategic water purchase in the Murray-Darling Basin and take a strategic approach to water purchases that prioritises the lowest possible impact in communities.”
Yet despite the Riverina being one of Australia’s greatest food bowls and agricultural export earners and despite the Standing Committee’s Recommendation 7, on 29 February 2012 the Commonwealth placed and paid for an advertisement on Page 4 of Griffith's newspaper, The Area News, headed in large bold capitals 'Environmental water purchase'.
The Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, The Hon. Tony Burke, said this was a call for expressions of interest. He said this was a new, targeted initiative. But in my view and the widely held view of those in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area community, this went against what Minister Burke told the 12,000 people who turned out at the MDBA community forum in Griffith on 15 December 2011 and what he repeated at a meeting which attracted 3,500 people at Deniliquin the very next day.
In Question Time on 28 February 2012 the Minister stressed that this was a strategic rather than a non-strategic buyback but it is a buyback by any other name and, with so much uncertainty in the MIA and Coleambally Irrigation Area communities at present and a crisis of confidence stalling investment due to the water plan, it was an ill-timed expression of interest/buyback.
If the sorts of environmental flows being demanded by green groups become legislated, the people of Darlington Point, a town established on the Murrumbidgee River in the 1860s, will have to pack up and move to avoid permanent flooding.
Many of the towns within the MIA were developed by soldier settlers – returned servicemen from The Great War of 1914-18 ... heroes all.
In Griffith’s main street, Banna Avenue, there is a splendid statue cast in bronze depicting two soldiers exchanging a gun for a farm plough. Mounted on a large rock plinth and cast in bronze, it contains several brass memorial narrative plaques with wording as follows:
“They cleared the virgin scrub to establish farms which have since provided the base for which is now the most progressive and productive irrigation area in Australia. The Memorial also signifies the debt we owe to those of their sons, many of whom were raised in poverty and adversity, who gave their lives during the World War of 1939-45.”
If those brave soldier settlers, all long since departed, knew there was a move, aided and abetted by the Commonwealth Government, which threatened the very towns which they worked so hard to develop, they would surely and rightly turn in their graves!
The last great piece of visionary infrastructure our nation built was the Snowy Mountains Scheme, a hydro electricity and irrigation scheme built between 1949 and 1974.
Snowy Hydro Limited, which now runs the scheme, collects, stores and diverts water for irrigation from the Snowy Mountains catchment west to the Murray and Murrumbidgee River systems.
Snowy Hydro plays a vital role in the growth and the development of Australia’s national economy, by diverting water which underwrites more than $3 billion in agricultural produce.
The New South Wales Government lists the Riverina as having a major competitive advantage due to the availability of quality water and irrigation infrastructure thanks to the Blowering and Burrinjuck Dams which have a combined storage capacity of 2,654,000 megalitres.
When the Snowy Hydro Scheme was first put in place the plan was not only to provide increased electricity generating capacity but also to irrigate the dry west. The scheme was seen at the time to be a milestone towards full national development.
Burrinjuck Dam, construction of which began in 1907, divides the upper and lower catchment of the Murrumbidgee and is the headwater storage for the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area.
Australia needs to utilise the infrastructure we have in place for the purpose for which it was made and to increase our water storage capacity. We need to build more dams.
Riverina farming families form an integral component of ensuring that quality, Australian-grown food remains in Australia. If the Draft is implemented in its current form, Australian farming families will go from world leaders to the bottom of the barrel, left with little choice other than to keep on farming with significantly less water, or at worst, leave the land altogether.
The danger of land being left is that it leaves open the opportunity for emerging economic giants such as China and India to spark a revolution in Australian food production. This leaves Australia’s food security in a dire position because there can be no guarantee that foreign investors would not take everything they produce in Australia to countries throughout Asia.
Australian farmers just want a fair go. They want water availability and they want to be able to play the role of feeding the nation, and those around us. A fair and equitable Murray-Darling Basin Plan would provide the required water to Australian farmers, and at the same time help secure the country’s food security.
The continued talk of buying water only from willing sellers flies in the face of what we all know – desperate times make for desperate sellers. Declining confidence in regional economies due to the scale of the propose cuts in water allocations and bank pressuring farmers to repay mounting debts leaves some farmers with no option but to sell.
The farmers who are targeted in these cutbacks are the same stoic and resilient farmers who endured more than a decade of drought. Then, when the drought broke they believed they were going to have a decent harvest to only be thwarted at the last minute by the devastating floods of 2010 and then again in 2012.
People are desperately worried about whether they have a future in their communities. Less water will result in fewer jobs and less people. If there are no irrigators in Coleambally and other irrigation communities within the Basin, there will be no children to enrol in the schools, no one will shop at the local stores and they will become nothing more than ghost towns.
We all want a health river system – a vibrant ecological future. No-one wants this more than the irrigation farmers themselves. These are farmers who for years have improved their farms and achieved water savings. It is pivotal that the draft plan delivers good environmental outcomes without compromising regional Australia.
No-one wants a healthy river system more than those people who live along the river network which truly is the life-blood of our nation and also those people whose incomes rely upon it.
The economic modelling undertaken by Independent Economics and released on 10 April 2012 paints a far more accurate picture of the real and grim scenario confronting regional towns as to the impact of the Draft Basin Plan. Essentially, it outlines how the draft plan will depopulate regional towns and the widespread job losses and economic downturn which will be caused. I know it will be part of another submission and I recommend it to the MDBA for serious consideration as part of framing the Basin Plan. I also acknowledge the excellent submission by the NSW Government and the recommendations contained therein.
Independent Economics, led by the highly regarded Chris Murphy was commissioned to delve into assumptions and model impacts of the plan for the South West Murrumbidgee. The South West Murrumbidgee takes in the Local Government Areas of Griffith, Leeton, Narrandera, Carrathool and Murrumbidgee. This independent study found that the impacts on the South West Murrumbidgee is likely to permanently reduce Gross Domestic Product in those five LGA’s by about nine per cent and income by about 200 million dollars and 2100 jobs comprising 1400 positions from urban-based service industries and 700 jobs from farming and processing businesses. This would make those five LGAs unsustainable and unviable into the future.
I was a member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Regional Australia which issued the bipartisan report Of drought and flooding rains: inquiry into the impact of the Guide to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. The Committee met with people from all walks of life throughout the basin and reached a consensus for recommendations that would be put forward. In the end 21 recommendations were submitted, recommendations which stemmed from the views of those who the basin plan will affect. These recommendations need to be put in place – they are too important to be ignored.
In 2011 The Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee found that the provisions of the Water Act create a legal framework where “environmental considerations can be, and are, given substantially more ‘weight’ than social and economic considerations.” The Committee recommended the Act be amended to ensure that environmental considerations do not take precedence over social and economic factors.
The recommendations were based on legal advice sought from a number of sources, including former Murray-Darling Basin Authority Chair Mike Taylor. Further, the Government’s response to the Committee has called into question the validity of summary legal advice the Government had previously released. To date, only 10 pages of the more than 1000 pages of legal advice the Government has received have been released.
The Murray-Darling Basin is too important to be kept in the dark on these matters, and it is crucial that this information is made available before any Basin Plan can be finalised.
I sincerely hope this submission, along with the many others to be considered will assist the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to determine the Guide Draft to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan as it currently stands does not benefit regional Australia, but is instead set to destroy it.
Michael McCormack MP
Federal Member for Riverina
11-15 Fitzmaurice Street