At the end of last year, fiery community meetings with farmers burning copies of the guide to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan were followed by a succession of resignations from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA).

Now it’s leading scientists refusing to work with the MDBA, with the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists declaring it won’t be involved in a “fundamentally flawed process” after new modelling dramatically decreased the minimum level of water to be returned to the river.

The previous guide to the basin plan saw a minimum of 4000 gigalitres of water put back in the basin. New research from the MDBA now advocates just 2800 gigalitres.

When told that the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists’ proposal for an independent review into this new research had been denied by the MDBA, Peter Cosier, founder and director at the Wentworth Group, resigned from his position on the eight-person testing committee for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Environmental engineer Tim Stubbs, who leads the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists on water issues, spoke to Crikey about the need for an independent review of the science.

Stubbs said the science was clear and that 4000 gigalitres minimum was the consensus among the majority of scientists who studied the basin.

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority conducted two years of its own research and put together its own figure of 3850 gigalitres, explains Stubbs. “The authority — after two years of its own research — sees an absolute minimum of nearly 4000 and then suddenly ‘new modelling’ says 2800 gigalitres, without giving any indication of how that amount will affect changes to the health of the river system,” he said.

Stubbs says there is a concern within the scientific community about the number of ecologists and the limited depth of ecological skills within the MDBA, and the scientists working at the MDBA are not prominent or well-known scientists.

“It could be great new science and that’s wonderful if it is and achieves the same outcomes, but such a significant change in such a short amount of time needs to be independently peer reviewed,” said Stubbs.

The latest figures came to light at a recent two-day conference held by the MDBA, which the Wentworth Group refused to attend as it did not view the forum as a suitable replacement for an independent review.

One of the scientists who attended the conference, professor of environmental science at the University of New South Wales, Richard Kingsford said he was “not happy talking” to Crikey about the changes to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan science and instead was “waiting with baited breath to see what’s happening”.

“I am hoping the government will examine some of the issues raised around the science,” said Kingsford.

He explained that some of the new modelling used some of the original models from the CSIRO’s Murray-Darling Basin Sustainable Yields Project but that it was unclear to him how much the models had been adapted.

When asked whether an independent review had been refused, chief executive Rob Freeman told Crikey “No, the authority has not refused. A decision has not yet been taken.”

In more general statement emailed to Crikey earlier, the MDBA said “At this stage the authority is still considering its development of the future processes to support the final basin plan. The authority will not prematurely enter into a discussion of these processes in response to the views of just one interest/lobby group.”

It did note that the MDBA saw transparency as key to the whole project, adding: “However, the chairman has made it clear on a number of occasions that ongoing and transparent monitoring and evaluation of the plan must be integral to the process and future outcomes.”

Groups including the Australian Conservation Foundation have added their voice to the calls for an independent review.

In a press release sent yesterday, ACF’s Healthy Rivers Campaigner Dr Arlene Harriss-Buchan called for tomorrow’s meeting of state and federal Murray-Darling ministers to demand a review of the science: “The science underpinning the plan must be peer-reviewed, transparent and open to scrutiny. When the ministerial council meets on Friday it should make clear that it will not allow the science to be buried, lost or downplayed in the next draft of the Basin Plan.”

When asked about the drop down to 2800 gigalitres by ABC’s 7.30 earlier this week, MDBA chairman Craig Knowles said:

“I’m yet to land on any numbers. I’m yet to conclude my processes. Science is important, but so are other things. This is not just about a science exercise for a whole lot of academics and scientists. It’s actually about real lives, real people, real economies.”

Stubbs told Crikey that the scientific data and social scientific data needs to be laid out clearly together. “Our concern at the moment is the authority’s assertions that they need to make judgment calls,” explain Stubbs. “Each piece of information should be transparently laid out and the judgments made from that and then people can understand the different calls from that and what we gain or lose with each choice.”

It’s critical that the right science is used because $10 billion of taxpayer money is being thrown into the project, notes Stubbs. The cost of running the MDBA for this year alone is $38 million

One common frustration raised by farmers and other groups who disagree with the original guide figure of 4000 gigalitres is that the science is flawed because the research was done during the drought. Many in the basin have battled floods and heavy rains in recent months.

Stubbs disagrees. “The flood is a short respite but it doesn’t fix everything. All the modelling is done on a 110 years of climate data and is very long term. Every good farmer knows that you don’t set up your business based on the wettest year. Good farmers see that the climate is very variable and they need a business that can survive the good times and the bad and the environment is no different.”

Peter Fray

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