A Senate inquiry into the availability of water in the Murray-Darling basin to save the Coorong is likely when Parliament resumes in a fortnight. The Greens today called for an urgent inquiry into what water is available within the system for purchase by the Government.

Coalition senators have also complained about the lack of information on what water could be urgently purchased within the Basin to temporarily prevent further drying-out of the Coorong and Lower Lakes, and South Australian independent Nick Xenophon has signalled he will aggressively push the government on the Murray. Given that the removal of the tidal barrages is being seriously considered by the South Australian Government, the inquiry could be widened into the effects of returning the region to its original estuarine state.

However, the inquiry will have to be urgent indeed if it is to seriously identify options for additional water sources before the end of the year. It is estimated that more than 500 Gl of water are required by the end of the year to prevent irreparable damage to the area. The ACF has already identified six major properties, including several currently on the market, that would provide the necessary water if returned to environmental flows. The Murray-Darling Basin Commission has rejected the ACF figures and maintains that there is not enough water available – only 2,250 GL of publicly-stored water. This appears to miss the ACF’s point, which is about privately-held water.

The inquiry might end up a simple rehash of that argument while the Coorong crisis continues to worsen into Spring, but will at least keep the issue, which is generating real anger in South Australia, in play when Parliament resumes. The Commission is briefing Cabinet today at a meeting in Adelaide, where the Prime Minister this morning had a fairly aggressive interview on the issue on the ABC. He declared the Coorong “an absolute environmental priority” but ducked the issue of compulsory water acquisition and lifting the water trading cap preventing water buybacks that could provide additional water to the Coorong.

Holding the Cabinet meeting in Adelaide suggests there’ll be something new emerge from it, but expectations will be high. The issue is generating real anger in South Australia. Rudd repeatedly and correctly emphasised that the Howard Government did nothing substantial on this for twelve years, during which time the crisis could have been averted. Unfortunately, that’s not the issue any more, Prime Minister. You’re in the hot seat now.

Peter Fray

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