When a report into the environmental health of the lower reaches of the Murray-Darling river system was leaked to the media earlier this week, nobody was more surprised than the politicians who received the report back in May.

According to Dr Arlene Buchan, healthy rivers campaigner with the Australian Conservation Foundation, the leak suggests that the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council “swept that document under the carpet and pretended it didn’t exist. It’s clear that because the Ministerial council didn’t disclose this document and didn’t act on the warning of these scientists that they’ve put it into the too hard basket.

“They effectively made a decision to let the lower lakes and the Coorong go by refusing to take action in the six month window of opportunity identified by the scientists. However, it would appear that the furore following the leak that’s come from right across the community, and not just in Australia, has sparked some action. Ministers have asked their departments to start crunching some numbers on what might be done to avert the catastrophe.”

The report warns that the Coorong, the Lower Lakes and the mouth of the Murray River will be irreversibly damaged unless environmental flows are restored or rainfall increases dramatically by October this year. Given that the worsening nature of the problem has been known since at least 2002, what realistically can be achieved in only six months?

Buchan says that state water ministers in conjunction with Federal Water Minister Penny Wong must find 400 gigalitres, mostly from the Darling system, and get it onto the Lower Lakes and Coorong almost immediately. There are number of options whose feasibility can be measured within a couple of weeks for finding that water .

“First cab off the rank would be buying water off willing sellers, mostly cotton growers. Because international cotton prices are so low, there are some growers who would prefer to sell their water for environmental purposes this year than grow cotton.”

But Professor Mike Young, Research Chair of Water Economics and Management University of Adelaide, says we shouldn’t blame Penny Wong for the current situation.

“There is water that’s held by states and there is water in Commonwealth system and there is tension between the two,” Young told Crikey, adding that the crisis that we are in “really underscores how important it is that all the state premiers get behind Wong and negotiate a new agreement.” And the COAG meeting on 3 July is D Day for action.

“The shortlist of actions for 3 July is to put all states under the same sharing regime, and for all states to have access to storage so they can manage interseasonal risk. We have to deal with the impact that forest and farm damns have on water supply, and we need an authority which is empowered to set aside the water that is needed to cover the evaporative losses which flush salt out of the bottom of the river, and on something like a monthly basis make allocations to shareholders in the system.

According to Young, nature is the only person right now who is keeping a rigorous water account, “and it’s telling us that in October 2002 they decided they had to put a dredge in the mouth of the Murray. That was the first warning we got. Ever since then we’ve been talking and talking and talking, and producing more plans to have plans, but now is actually the time to put a new agreement in place. The time for action and decisive national leadership is now.”

Peter Fray

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