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Politics

Aug 14, 2008

Murray Darling: 500 GI of water by December or bust

The Greens today called for an urgent inquiry into what water is available within the system for purchase by the Government, writes Bernard Keane.

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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.

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4 comments

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4 thoughts on “Murray Darling: 500 GI of water by December or bust

  1. AC

    There is a good reason why the water in private storages is being ignored: you would have to build infrastructure to get the water out of the storages and back into the river. These private on-farm storages are designed to have water pumped into them from the river and then onto crops; to go the other way would need new pumps, channels, etc.

    As to the ACF’s plan of buying up those farms: it’s all very nice, but five of the six farms only have water harvesting licences, which means that the water would only be available episodically. Unless there was a very large inflow to the upper Darling in the next year or so this is not going to save the lower lakes; and even if there was, as these farms are so far up the Darling you’re looking at loosing more than 75% by the time it makes it to the mouth.

    Tandou on the other hand does have licences for regulated water and is located in a part of the system where you might be able to make use of the water. Tandou is a publicly listed company and their shares have fallen to 20c, perhaps the Feds should start buying?

  2. Bernard Keane

    The Prime Minister released the following statement this evening:

    NEW MEASURES TO DEAL WITH THE CRITICAL SITUATION IN THE MURRAY-DARLING BASIN

    The Rudd Government today announced three sets of new water initiatives to help deal with the critical situation in the Murray Darling Basin.

    These new initiatives will build on the Governments Water for the Future Plan by improving water management in the Murray Darling Basin.

    These initiatives were finalised by Cabinet in Adelaide today where the full Cabinet met to discuss the critical situation in the Murray Darling Basin.

    The new Basin-wide initiatives announced today include:

    • The first comprehensive, detailed and externally reviewed audit of both public and private water storages in the Basin.
    • Initiating a new basin-wide tender in 2008-09; and expanding the previously announced Queensland tender to include northern NSW and increasing funding for this program by $50 million to $400 million.
    • A Commonwealth-State initiative to co-fund the purchase of properties holding large water entitlements, particularly in the northern Basin.

    The Cabinet today received a briefing on the Lower Lakes from the Murray Darling Basin Commission on the state of the Lower Lakes. The Cabinet confirmed that if the South Australian Government, based on the advice of experts, finds that it has become absolutely necessary to open the Lakes to sea water, the Commonwealth will consider any such proposals.

    In addition, Cabinet today decided to become a co-investor with the South Australian Government in any future expansion of its desalination plant at Point Stanvac from its current proposed 50 Gigalitres to a possible expanded capacity of 80-100 Gigalitres.

    Cabinet also decided to accelerate the $120 million SA pipeline project to secure water supplies for Lower Lakes communities. This project will involve connecting Lower Lakes communities to water supplies further upstream at Tailem Bend.

    The new initiatives announced today are designed to help the nation meet the huge challenges we face in the Murray-Darling Basin.

    WHOLE-OF-BASIN INITIATIVES

    1. Murray-Darling Basin Water Audit

    The Murray Darling Basin Commission will finalise a detailed and comprehensive audit of water availability in both private and public storages across the Basin within the next month.

    This is in response to the South Australian Government requesting more information on Basin water storages.

    This will be updated every three months with the information made publicly available.

    Initial advice on current water availability was released by the Commission last week, and we have requested that this report be completed and released within a month.

    We will seek the assistance of an international auditing company to review the methodology used by the Commission in producing the audit.

    It is important that we ensure communities across the Basin have a clear understanding of the scale of the problem in the Murray-Darling Basin.

    2. Purchasing water entitlements to return to the Basin’s rivers and wetlands

    In response to concerns expressed by the South Australian Government, the Federal Government will further accelerate water purchasing activities following the success of the first-ever Federal Government water purchase earlier this year.

    This will ensure rivers and wetlands across the Basin get a greater share of water when it becomes available in the future.

    The Government’s new Murray-Darling Basin water purchase plan includes:

    • Initiating the $80 million of water purchasing in South Australia;
    • Conducting the Queensland water tender, including extending it to accept water entitlements from properties elsewhere in the northern basin and near Menindee Lakes and extending the existing commitment of $350 million to $400 million subject to the water being securable against downstream interception;
    • Initiating a new Basin-wide water purchase tender in 2008-09;
    • Working with irrigation communities to buyout water entitlements from areas willing to move out of irrigation, facilitated by a price premium reflecting the value of water savings from closure of infrastructure such as supply channels; and
    • Working with State Governments to co-fund the purchase of appropriately located irrigation properties and their water entitlements to enhance environmental outcomes in the northern basin.

    3. Allowing water to go to where it brings most benefit by freeing up water trade in the Basin

    The Commonwealth will actively pursue the implementation of water reform initiatives necessary to ensure the lifting of the 4 per cent limit on water and the application of that limit on a consistent basis as soon as possible.

  3. Bernard Keane

    4. Rolling out the Government’s $5.8 billion commitment to making irrigation infrastructure more efficient and achieve water savings

    This includes accelerating projects such as the New South Wales government’s efforts to reduce evaporation and achieve water savings at Menindee Lakes to help secure Broken Hill’s water supply and, in the longer term, provide greater flows to the Murray.

    5. Establishing the new independent Murray-Darling Basin Authority by the end of the year, which will implement a new Basin Plan in 2011 including a new sustainable cap on water use.

  4. Tom McLoughlin

    Is this Rudd’s ‘gun buy back’ test at a similar stage to that of the Howard Government? Or will he raise the white flag to go with his white hair?

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