The receding waters of Lake Pamamaroo which makes up part of the Menindee Lakes system (Image: AAP/Dean Lewins)

Here we go. The Productivity Commission has just ripped the lid off a nasty can of worms by opening a new inquiry into water reform.

Water is one of the most vitriolic and dangerous policy areas in this bone-dry yet also flood-prone country. And the inquiry, which commenced with an issues paper released last week, will look at the 2004 National Water Initiative — the overarching water agreement between the Commonwealth, states and territories (except WA and Tasmania, which share very few rivers with the rest of us). It covers rural and urban water, offering up ample areas for disagreement.

The review’s timing is auspicious, coming at a time when the eastern seaboard is verdant. After an enormous drought over the last three years, eastern Australia has taken a soaking in 2020. The next two maps depict the long-lasting drought and the recent rains.

The Bureau of Meteorology expects good rainfall to continue throughout 2020.

“Warmer ocean temperatures surrounding the continent will push us in the direction of better than average rainfall,” says Dr Andrew Watkins, the Bureau of Meteorology’s manager of long-range forecasting. “Most areas of mainland Australia are showing a better than 70% chance of having a wetter than average winter.”

Could this little period be a window to make change? It is easier to make change in the good times than the bad — at least in theory. Or will rural communities be especially disinclined to reform while agricultural trade with China is in peril? Time will tell, but history suggests progress on water is awfully hard.

The Productivity Commission has a broad remit: to not only see if Australia is making progress toward the goals of the 2004 National Water Initiative, but also to see if those goals are still appropriate. It can also suggest future reforms to water policy, and consider the interaction with “climate, energy, agriculture, forestry, land use planning and urban development”.

In short, it has open slather. That adds a great deal of spice to the process. Everything that all parties care about is up for grabs. 

When PC last reviewed things three years ago, it warned against backsliding: “There is evidence of backsliding against early reform commitments, with some governments appearing to have forgotten the reasons for those reforms and taken for granted the benefits they generated. We are starting to see the re-emergence of outdated public policy.”

When that review was taking place, affected communities got together to register their objections. The Southern Riverina Irrigators — an organisation representing 1600 farmers in southern NSW — left no doubt about their views, opening their submission with the following sentence, written in large font: “It is time for water reform to stop”.

It won’t. 

This time, as well as the usual fights over environmental water, the Productivity Commission is zeroing in on urban water supply. Cities and towns are the next flashpoint for water scarcity.

“It is likely that significant augmentation of urban water supplies will be required in the future as a result of climate change and ongoing population growth,” they say. Building more desalination plants is unlikely to be the answer, the report hints.

Indigenous water needs are also getting a look in, both for customary and economic purposes. Special water exemptions for mining are also in the firing line.

On top of all this, a separate Murray-Darling Basin report is coming next year and it’ll be a doozy. In 2019 a South Australian royal commission savaged the progress of reform in the basin and the legality of the actions of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. The Murray-Darling Basin is full of problems, including water theft. There’s not much point having great water rules if they’re not enforced.

I know it seems like we only just got past the big fires but, like our natural cycles, the cycle of Australian policymaking is a relentless march from one extreme to the other.

The PC is accepting submissions until August and a draft report will emerge later in the year. Expect more headlines on water for the next 12 months.

Peter Fray

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