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We need to be prepared for the next drought

Speak Up Campaign deputy chair Lloyd Polkingorne said welcome rain has eased some of the pressures on agriculture, but the fundamentals of maximising our most precious resource have still not been addressed.

“Unfortunately, politics and money have taken over water policy and management, and as a result we are wasting more than ever. While initiatives like the Murray-Darling Basin Plan were designed to ensure we effectively used resources to protect our environment and grow food, that has not been the outcome.

“Instead, we have decisions based on winning marginal seats, or what is best for a selfish state instead of the nation as a whole. State-based parochialism has been highlighted recently by inconsistent responses to the pandemic – in water policy it has been a problem for over a decade,” Mr Polkinghorne said.

He added this was also having a significant impact on the nation’s economy, at a time when we need to be maximising all opportunities.

“Under the Basin Plan, massive quantities of water are sent to South Australia in the name of protecting the environment. However, with all the barrages and locks along the Murray River in South Australia, this section of the river is altered more than any other. So we will never get close to returning it to a natural state.

“Instead, we are achieving the key South Australian aims of keeping the traditionally estuarine Lower Lakes full of fresh water for recreation purposes, and ensuring Adelaide has a plentiful water supply without turning on its taxpayer-funded desalination plant.

“As a consequence of sending so much water to the end of the system, we have massive volumes that flow out to sea and are simply wasted. During three weeks in December we saw 127 gigalitres – equivalent to a quarter of Sydney Harbour – run out into the Southern Ocean. This is a national disgrace,” Mr Polkinghorne said.

He says despite the breaking drought, NSW Murray farmers are still on only 43 per cent of their water allocation, and the water poured out to sea over a mere three weeks could have increased this to about 53 per cent. This would be enough to conservatively put more than $125 million into regional economies, which is also supporting the struggling national economy.

“When will governments wake up?” Mr Polkinghorne asked. “Rural communities, through irrigation and agricultural production, can be a driving force as we work through the post-pandemic rebuilding process.

“In 2021, governments need to acknowledge the mistakes in Basin Plan development and other failed water policy implementation. We built a world-class irrigation system that was designed to drought-proof our major food bowl, but due to politics and poor management it is no longer fulfilling this primary purpose.

“I hope to be discussing solutions with federal Water Minister Keith Pitt later this month. We want 2021 to be the year of building the Basin Plan that was promised, with genuine stakeholder engagement that effectively manages water for the environment and our communities. Let’s put past mistakes behind us and work towards a more productive future that effectively uses water, not pours billions of litres down the river and out to sea,” Mr Polkinghorne concluded.

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