Yesterday’s snap water crisis summit between the federal government and the eastern premiers (plus Mike Rann) came after a report that the three major irrigation dams in the Murray-Darling Basin could run dry within six months without significant rainfall. The half-day gave Bracks enough time to get back for a flutter on the Cup, but the timing was interesting nonetheless.

The summit’s outcomes – a further commitment of $200 million for drought assistance (bringing total spending on the current crisis to $2.3 billion) and the speeding up of the timetable for water trading between states – were largely overshadowed by Murray-Darling Basin Commission official David Dreverman’s headline grabber that the drought is more typical of a one in a thousand rather than a one in a hundred year event.

Malcolm Turnbull and the PM quickly moved to play down its significance. Turnbull noted: “It can be statistically calculated as one in a thousand years but we don’t know if there was one as bad in the last thousand years.”

It’s not clear what Dreverman’s assessment was based on, but Turnbull goes close to splitting hairs here. Casting doubt on climatic statistics has become increasingly untenable as a political strategy in recent months, but both the PM and Turnbull understand the inevitable implications of the comments as far as public perceptions on climate change go.

For their part the Greens dismissed yesterday’s meeting as a “talkfest”. In the past the states have been accused of going slow on implementation of water trading under the National Water Initiative, but the looming problem seems to be that the original water allocations were based on assessments of delivery to catchments that may no longer be climatically realistic.

Irrigation water has to come from somewhere, and environmental flows for already stressed rivers always seem to be the last consideration. The announcement by the Bracks government that the release of water for environmental flows in the Yarra are likely to be delayed has brought further criticism from Environment Victoria, and a recently released report by the Wentworth Group warns that the impacts of failing to guarantee environmental flows in the Murray-Darling system could be catastrophic, recommending that governments buy back leases in over-allocated systems.

Agriculture minister Peter McGauran says that buybacks are a last resort – but what threshold needs to be passed before we consider ourselves to be in that territory? The coalition in particular seems to be beset by a pervasive culture of “wait and see” in response to environmental crises that decidedly cannot be addressed reactively.

Perhaps with the federal government’s mania for technological fixes, it is only a matter of time before the calls go up for the flotilla of Antarctic icebergs penetrating almost as far north as New Zealand to be towed into harbour.

Peter Fray

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