The Murray-Darling Basin reforms are in turmoil, with the shock resignation of Mike Taylor, chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

The resignation arrived in a letter to water minister Tony Burke yesterday, including a damning review of the rock-and-a-hard place spot the MDBA has been jammed into by the Water Act 2007. A press release, personally written by Taylor, was released this morning, outlining the details of the letter:

… balancing the requirements of the Water Act 2007 against the potential social and economic impact on communities will be a significant challenge. The Guide [to the proposed Basin Plan] was developed with full regard to the requirements of the Water Act, and in close consultation with the Australian Government Solicitor. However, the Authority has sought, and obtained, further confirmation that it cannot compromise the minimum level of water required to restore the system’s environment on social or economic grounds.

Discussions, planning and addressing the full gamut of environmental, economic and social issues should commence immediately. This process should not be delayed by the Authority’s report on the sustainable diversion limits on water for human uses required by the final Basin Plan, due at the end of 2011.

… delay would give rise to increasing community concerns and investment uncertainty in rural and regional areas of the Basin. Moreover, it may ultimately jeopardise the successful implementation of an initiative which is vital to the long term sustainability of both the river system and the communities who contribute to the health of our nation as a whole.

It is clear that the work required over the next 12 months is extensive, and crucial to the adoption and implementation of a credible Basin Plan, capable of full implementation. While I strongly support that outcome, I believe it is time for the Government to reconsider the next phase.

The guide to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was released in October, with the first round of community meetings officially ending on November 11 (additional sessions are being held based on feedback at the first meetings). Included in the guide was news that an additional 3000 to 4000 gigalitres of water was to be returned to the river and water allocations would be cut by 27%-37% to meet the current objectives of the Water Act.

Taylor, a veteran public servant with extensive experience in regional and agricultural issues, attended numerous community meetings throughout the Basin, which included facing thousands of angry farmers and locals and hearing their take on the plan. Much of the reporting of the meetings focused on the tense atmosphere, the burning of a guide at the Deniliquin meeting and hundreds more people turning up then expected.

December 17 is the final date for this round of community consultations to be guaranteed inclusion in the proposed Murray-Darling Basin Plan (remember, it is still in the “guide to the plan” stage), and a further round of consultations will be held once the proposal is released.

But Brian Ramsay, from the Basin Pulse initative, described Taylors’ resignation as a “huge setback to water reform”.

“The public debate since the release of the Guide to the Basin Plan has been largely shaped by interest groups that benefit from the status quo, even though we know that these groups do not reflect the views of the Basin community at large,” he told Crikey. “The resignation of the chair signals a tipping point. A loss of momentum, increased confusion and higher risk of mediocre outcomes now seem inevitable.”

Taylor’s parting does present an opportunity for the authority to re-commit itself to the role of the Basin Plan and focus on putting enough water back into the river to restore its health, according to the Australian Conservation Foundation. ACF’s Healthy Rivers campaigner Dr Arlene Harriss-Buchan said: “The authority must remember the whole point of the Basin Plan is to return this severely stressed river system to health. The truth is we’ve taken far too much water out of the Murray-Darling for far too long.

“Wild claims of 10,000 jobs being lost through even a modest increase in environmental flows are unrealistic and unsupported by recent history. We have not heard enough from dry-land farmers, tourist operators, graziers, fishers and others who need a healthy flow of water in the Murray-Darling to survive.”

Reforms aren’t over yet, says Ramsay: “Retrieving the situation and delivering on community expectations is still achievable. But it will take strong and decisive leadership at the political level to stare down opponents to the reforms that our best scientists and the basin community itself say are needed.”

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has said this morning the government doesn’t want changes to the Water Act, despite Taylor’s concerns: “The government will continue to see these reforms with optimisation across these three areas. The government will appoint a replacement as chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and our reform program will stay on track.”

Taylor will stay in the position until January, and a search is on for his replacement.

Peter Fray

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