The Murray Darling Basin Plan is unlawful and should be rewritten so that the health of the river system is the only consideration when it comes to calculating the amount of water recovered from irrigation.
That’s according to the South Australian Royal Commission into the Murray Darling Basin Plan, which released the findings from its year long investigation today.
It remains to be seen if the sweeping call to rewrite the plan, which would require significant funding above the $13 billion budget, is politically palatable.
Commissioner Bret Walker’s findings flow from his interpretation of the Basin Plan’s enabling legislation, the 2007 Water Act, made his findings that the scientific evidence for water recovery was clouded by political considerations.
Mr Walker said the law states environmental factors come above all else - namely social and economic impacts to river communities.
The year-long investigation found that the Basin Plan should be reset so there is “no compromise” on environmental recovery and more water must be recovered from irrigators.
He also said the Murray-Darling Basin Authority had ignored and misrepresented science and was an incompetent administrator.
The Northern Basin Amendment to reduce water recovery by 70 gigaltires was an example of how the MDBA was “unwilling and incapable of fulfilling their statutory functions and obligations”.
Mr Walker said the MDBA had also failed river communities and the Commission had heard from many locals who presented cogent and affecting accounts of the impact of the water reform on their communities
“The habitual behaviour of the MDBA, and to a lesser but alarming extent the CSIRO, is marked by an unfathomable predilection for secrecy,” he said.
“The approach of the relevant officials to those concerns in particular, and to the concerns voiced by the broader community, has bordered on appearing to be indifferent, dismissive, and thereby disrespectful.”
At what cost?
Recovering more water would add significant cost to the $13 billion Basin Plan, as would many of the Royal Commission’s other 44 recommendations.
To date about $7b of the Basin Plan’s funding has been spent and 2000GL has been recovered for the environment. There’s about 1200GL to go.
The Basin Plan calculated an overall water recovery figure of 3200GL against a triple-bottom line - which considers environmental, social and economic factors.
The report said when more water is recovered, it should come from direct buybacks from irrigators.
But also there should be investment in Basin communities to help their economies adjust to reduced irrigation.
It was critical of the benefits of investment schemes that fund more efficient infrastructure and irrigators give up water rights in return.
Mr Walker called for more funding to the assist the states to develop new water resource plans, which are required under the Basin Plan to allocate water valley-by-valley.
There should also be comprehensive studies of groundwater and water harvested on floodplains, and a new metering regime for harvesting of overland flows.
On top of that, climate change has not been factored into the Basin Plan calculations and a new regulatory body should be established to develop adaptation policy.
The Murray Darling Basin Authority has already rejected Mr Walker’s critique of the Basin Plan, NSW Water Minister Niall Blair came out swinging and South Australian Premier Steven Marshall is cautious.
Mr Marshall said the Basin Plan was a “consensus” deal and SA must be “very careful” to keep Victoria, NSW and Queensland “at the table”.
“South Australia will be the loser if people start ripping up the original plan. There is always a danger if you start to go back to the drawing board,” Mr Marshall said.
Mr Blair appeared to reject the prospect of further water recovery, warning he would “fight tooth and nail” for irrigation communities.
“They need certainty. They need to know they have a future in the towns they love, communities they work in and the places they raise their families. What they don’t need is hysteria, legal challenges or more politicking,” Mr Blair said.
MDBA chief executive Phillip Glyde said he rejected “any assertion” the MDBA has acted unlawfully in anyway.
“The MDBA is confident that the Basin Plan has been made lawfully and is based on best available science. There is extensive documentation in our published reports to support this,” Mr Glyde said.
Mr Walker’s objection to the legality of the water recovery target could be overcome by a simple amendment in federal parliament, if the government of the day so wished.
Federal Water Minister David Littleproud backed the current form of the Basin Plan when responded to Mr Walker’s findings today.
“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,” Mr Littleproud said.
”The legal advice to the Commonwealth Government under both sides of politics for the last seven years has been consistent—the Basin Plan is lawful and was lawfully made.”
Opposition water spokesman Tony Burke, who led legislation of the Basin Plan in 2012, called for what he termed “serious allegations” by Mr Walker to be referred to the Australian Public Service Commission.
Mr Burke also accused former federal Water Minister Barnaby Joyce of “pressing pause” on critical elements of the Basin Plan, particularly constraints removal.
Constraints management involves rewriting operating rules and removing physical barriers from the river system so higher flows from water recovery can move downstream without flooding property and towns and damaging banks.
“Once you get beyond 2750GL (of water recovery) you get diminishing returns unless you remove contraints,” Mr Burke told the ABC.
Mr Burke has so far resisted calls for a federal Royal Commission.
Senior water researcher at the The Australia Institute Maryanne Slattery said the Royal Commission “couldn’t have been more clear” about systemic failure in of the Basin Plan implementation and decision makers need to act now so we don’t squander a major reform opportunity.
“It is really important that we go back to the really good underpinning of science that we have in the next phase of trying to get this thing back on track and implementing the basin plan properly to get better environmental outcomes,” Ms Slattery said.
“It is clearly failing in the implementation and the Royal Commissioner couldn't have been more clear about the multiple and systemic levels of failure.”
The story Royal Commission demands Basin Plan re-write, but at what cost? first appeared on Farm Online.