Regardless of who wins the federal election this month, a day of reckoning is approaching for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
The Speak Up Campaign says “kicking the hard decisions down the road” must come to an end soon, with the Basin Plan water saving deadlines just two years away.
“We are not going to achieve the plan’s 2024 recovery targets,” said Speak Up Chair Shelley Scoullar, “but we do not have politicians with the courage to admit this indisputable fact and then commit to working with communities so we can fix the mistakes that have been made.
“Whether it’s Labor/Greens or the Coalition, they refuse to acknowledge that we need a re-set. But the day of reckoning will soon be here and the choice will have to be made: Do we plough ahead and ruin the iconic Murray River forever, or do we put politics aside and work with communities to find sensible solutions?
“They are the only two options. Unfortunately, recent history tells us that ruining the river will probably prevail because our politicians seem incapable of accepting solutions that may get an adverse reaction in their precious city heartlands,” Mrs Scoullar said.
A recent ABC report, which also acknowledged “a reckoning is coming”, highlighted the political differences at state and federal level over Basin Plan implementation, in particular how the additional 450 gigalitres for South Australia will be recovered.
While the federal Labor Party has not ruled out more water buybacks, the Basin Ministerial Council has developed strict criteria to ensure there is not further social and environmental damage, which severely affected rural communities in southern NSW and northern Victoria after previous buybacks.
Speak Up and other water advocates have long called for an extension to Basin Plan deliverability so the problems with its implementation could be addressed, but this has been constantly rejected. Not surprisingly, they were stunned when federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud recently stated that if the Basin Plan’s water saving deadlines need to be extended, they should be. This is a sharp turnaround from when he was Water Minister and there was fury in regional communities at his unbending position that the plan must be completed “in full and on time”.
“The change of tune is welcome, but where has it been over the past five years? And why hasn’t this view been expressed by his successor Keith Pitt, who likewise pushes this ridiculous ‘in full and on time’ mantra?” Mrs Scoullar asked.
She pointed out that Speak Up has previously likened the Basin Plan to construction of a bridge, as it is an analogy Mr Pitt may understand as an engineer before he entered politics.
“Quite obviously the Basin Plan has significant flaws that should be addressed. If the government was building a bridge and it was discovered the pylons were weak, would it soldier on regardless and finish the bridge, knowing it may collapse? Of course it wouldn’t. So why on earth does it continue implementing this flawed Basin Plan that is damaging the very environment it is supposed to protect?
“Why are we allowing the devastation in the Murray River to continue? In the mid-Murray section, especially from Cobram to Barham, we have massive bank erosion and therefore loss of habitat for numerous native species.
“Throughout the Basin we have European carp proliferation due to excess watering, especially low-lying areas, with the subsequent damage caused by these ‘rabbits of the river’.”
Mrs Scoullar said another issue that has not been addressed is constraints management.
“I am not sure this issue is understood by many of our politicians. They do not seem to comprehend that the amount of water being recovered will not fit down the Murray River due to constraints limitations. To overcome some of these constraints, agreements must be reached with property owners, yet this process hasn’t even started. As far as we are aware, not one agreement has been signed.
“It is impossible for this to be achieved by 2024. So what happens then? Will we have huge volumes of water sitting in dams supposedly for ‘environmental use’ that cannot be released because it won’t fit down the system, but not enough water allocated to growing the food and fibre our nation needs? Under this scenario, regional communities will continue to suffer and every Australian will be hit by increased cost of living.
“The best way to bring down the cost of food is to grow more. But you can’t do that without water.”
Mrs Scoullar said rural communities are hoping that at some point governments will start delivering the flexible Basin Plan that was promised more than a decade ago.
“We haven’t seen it yet, and in fact there is not even an indication that it is on the horizon. But with the 2024 deadline looming perhaps there will be a realisation that a re-set is needed. We live in hope,” she concluded.