Getting some water to the Coorong and Lower Lakes is, it seems, all too hard for Penny Wong. Her department’s report on options for addressing the crisis is an extended explanation of why, gee, much as it hurts us to say it, nothing can be done.
The report — a submission to the Senate inquiry into water management of the Lower Lakes and Coorong — canvasses a number of options for addressing acidification in the area. Pumping is currently underway from Lake Alexandrina to Lake Albert and can be extended because of recent rainfall. That can continue until late summer, according to the report.
But that’s about it for the “good news”.
The other options are:
Pump water from the Coorong into Lake Albert. Increasing the salinity of both Lake Albert and, inevitably, the Coorong. This would need (in both the legal and good policy sense) to be rigorously assessed because of the risks associated with it.
Open Lake Alexandrina to the sea. The doomsday option that would require protective measures to protect the Murray from increased salt water and, again, be rigorously assessed for its inevitably huge environmental impacts. Both this and the previous option seem to be the Murray-Darling Basin Commission’s preferred options. The rest of the options, from the bureaucracy’s point of view, are all unworkable, or at least are made to sound unworkable.
Releasing water from the Menindee Lakes. Assuming the MDBC could gain access to it from the NSW Government, which is deliberately keeping that system out of the control of the MDBC — won’t work because that water is needed for human use and half would be lost in transit to the Lower Lakes.
Water purchased from the northern Basin. Would mostly be lost in transit down to South Australia and, OMG, NSW would have to suspend some of its water trading rules (you can almost hear the sharp breath of bureaucratic mortification). And water can’t be temporarily purchased from the southern Basin because there’s not much of it and it would inflict $1b worth of damage to the horticultural industry.
Snowy Hydro water. Is dedicated to human needs, but there might be some additional water available for purchase at some point in the future.
All very grim – but there are a couple of options that the report — inexplicably — doesn’t consider. One is to purchase water in the northern Basin and use it to replenish the Menindee Lakes while they are used to supply some of the water necessary for the Coorong and Lower Lakes. This would cut down on the amount of water lost in evaporation (which gets worse the longer we wait and warmer it gets) in transit, and ensure the Menindee Lakes water can remain available for critical human needs.
The other is to remove the 4% trading cap immediately and start buying some of the water in the southern Basin that is available for purchase right now but which can’t be because of John Brumby’s desire to look after irrigators and water traders.
The claim that purchasing water would result in $1b worth of damage to the horticulture industry got a good headline in The Australian. But the report offers no evidence or rationale for the figure. Nor does it make sense – none of the options proposed relate to compulsory acquisition of water rights, so the only acquisitions would be from willing sellers, presumably on the basis that their production has become unviable.
Despite these flaws, the report enables Wong to explain, in her Valium-like monotone, that as much as she’d love to do something about the Lower Lakes and Coorong, there’s not enough water.
There is enough water in the Murray-Darling system. She and her bureaucrats just lack the will to obtain it, or at least fight to get it.