QUEENSLAND LNP Senator Matthew Canavan says the commonwealth’s approach to meeting water recovery targets in the Murray Darling Basin Plan must be “smarter” or else the economic rug will be pulled out from under rural communities.
Senator Canavan is a member of the Senate Select Committee that’s investigating the Basin Plan’s social and economic impacts which held a public meeting in St George, Queensland, on Tuesday.
The Basin Plan was signed into law in late 2012 carrying a baseline target of 2750 gigalitres in Sustainable Diversions Limits (SDLs) or environmental water flows with an additional 450GL allocated for South Australia.
Senator Canavan said the St George hearing focused on an upcoming review of the Northern Basin in 2016 where the Basin Plan’s SDL targets could be adjusted via recommendations made by the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA).
“It’s clear from the inquiry that the Murray Darling Basin Plan is not done and there’s still a lot more work to do, particularly in the Northern Basin,” he said.
“It’s about time greater reality was brought to bear on the Northern Basin which is completely separate from the Southern Basin.
“The Northern Basin is a flatter, less-regulated system but the approach so far has been too concentrated on buying water back and ‘just adding water’.
“As somebody said at the hearing in St George, we’ve got to get over this ‘two minute noodle’ approach to the Northern Basin and thinking that ‘just adding water’ into the system and ‘letting it go’, is somehow going to deliver us a result because it won’t.
“We’ve got to start looking at how we can protect the environment in a range of ways, not just taking away the productive resource of regional communities like St George.
“If you just take that water away, it will pull the economic rug out from under these communities and there will be no more vibrant regional towns like St George.”
Use water infrastructure more efficiently
Senator Canavan said existing water infrastructure in the Northern Basin must be used smarter and more efficiently to meet the Basin Plan’s environmental watering targets.
He said weirs can be used and infrastructure upgraded, to better direct environmental water to environmental assets where needed, and therefore potentially use less water but achieve the same environmental outcomes.
Senator Canavan said private infrastructure that’s available around St George also had to be used, to better manage commonwealth water.
“The commonwealth government is now the biggest irrigator in the country but unlike most other irrigators, it has not had to be as efficient as possible,” he said.
“In the last few decades we’ve asked farmers to become more efficient every year and they’ve done that.
“But the commonwealth government continues to waste an enormous amount of water because it doesn’t use the most efficient storages and it just lets water go, without directing it properly.
“There are plenty of private storages in St George that could be used by the commonwealth government and they’re deeper and would produce less evaporation and water losses, if used properly.”
According to the MDBA, the Northern Basin review will closely examine a 143GL allocation for “shared reduction” in the region and 100GL allocation for the Condamine-Balonne “local reduction”.
If any change to the Basin Plan is warranted from the review, a statutory process to amend the Basin Plan will occur between mid-2016 and mid-2017.
At the Senate Select Committee’s first public hearing of its Basin Plan inquiry, held in Canberra on September 18, Senator Canavan also questioned MDBA officials about the Northern Basin review.
In response to the Senator’s questions, MDBA Social and Economic Policy Analysis General Manager David Galeano said the review was a commitment going back to the beginning of the Basin Plan.
“We are doing three streams of work: hydrological modelling, new environmental science projects and economic modelling,” he said.
“By the end of this year, we will have most of the work wrapped up for the new science and the development of the economic modelling and the hydrological modelling.
“In the first three or so months of next year, we will be joining all that information together for the Authority to make judgements about whether to change any of those sustainable diversion limits in the north.”
Mr Galeano said the economic analysis associated with the review was being conducted by Deloitte Access Economics.
He said that work included an agricultural land use model aimed at understanding changing levels of water availability and impacts on agricultural production.
It will also include modelling to provide broad information about what the water availability might mean for broader regional economies and provide greater detail about how the Northern Basin’s 21 communities operate individually.
SDL settings under scrutiny
Another component of the analysis will look into flood-plain grazing on properties in the Lower Balonne to understand what different water recovery scenarios might mean.
At the hearing, Senator Canavan asked the Authority if the Deloitte modelling work said “It's Armageddon: St George will be shut down if this keeps going”, would they recommend SDL changes to the minister, based on that analysis alone.
MDBA chief executive Rhonda Dickson said the point of the review was to see whether the SDL settings needed to be changed “and it was looking across the full triple bottom lines”.
“The answer to your question in brief is, yes; however, the caution I would put is when making any speculations one way or the other at this stage,” she said.
“The other thing we are doing at the same time in this whole work is looking at opportunities to do things smarter so it minimises impact.
“So, as well as just doing the bald studies, we are looking at changing where water is recovered to see if that makes an effect.”
But Senator Canavan told Fairfax Media he remained concerned given there was “a clear lack of science around the shared reduction targets for the Northern Basin”.
“The 140GL figure, to be frank, seems to have been pulled out of somebody’s backside and does not have a lot of science around what that water is actually going to be used for,” he said.
“I’m not going to support any extraction of water from communities that does not have a clear and identifiable environmental target.
“Right now there is no target so I would question the need to proceed with that shared reduction amount and I’m sure that’s something the Senate Select Committee and Northern Basin review will be looking at very closely.”
Senator Canavan said the Queensland government had warned the Senate Committee hearing in St George that there was no science around the 143GL.
“If governments can’t show us the environmental science then clearly that water loss should not be imposed on local communities,” he said.
Senator Canavan said the Northern Basin review was offered in “good faith” by the commonwealth government and agreed to by each of the Basin States, when the Basin Plan was agreed to.
“We need to maintain that faith with the community and make sure that we’re open to changes where environmental science or economic impacts clearly show that there needs to be a change."