Department of the Environment

Archived media releases and speeches

The Hon Tony Burke MP

Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

Address to the Australian Water Association

E&OE Speech transcript
Australian Water Association
3 November 2011

Water Minister Tony Burke addresses the Australian Water Association

Water Minister Tony Burke addresses the Australian Water Association  - 3 November 2011

Thank you very much. Good morning all.

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we're meeting on and their elders, past and present. And also as well as the many dignitaries and special guests that are here, deliver a special acknowledgement to Governor Whitman, it's a pleasure to have you with us in Australia.

Across our continent we all understand the simple problem with rainfall in a nation like Australia. The only areas where they get rainfall absolutely consistently tend to be in areas where you get monsoon rainfall for a few months of the year and then almost nothing for many, many months. With certain difficulties with soils a number of farming methods that just become very difficult in the north of the country.

Against that, in the rest of the country you have a cycle, which is an ongoing cycle, described as droughts and flooding rains. A cycle which of itself won't change, a cycle which our environment expects to have occur, but a cycle which makes farming methods extraordinarily difficult.

There has been an argument put out, for a bit over a year now, that in some way there has been a resistance from this Government, and Labor Governments generally, to the concept of using dams to harvest water.

Before I get to the Murray-Darling issues, given that there are people here from a range of water interests and well beyond the Murray-Darling represented here today, I just want to put that concept well and truly to bed because, quite simply, it is a lie.

It's been put forward, and I just want to set this very simple context, over the last few years there have been two new major dam proposals that have not gone ahead. Both were proposed by Labor Governments in Tillegra and Traveston, both were opposed by Coalition campaigns, both instances.

In the time that we've been in office here we've funded the Chaffey augmentation to take it from sixty-two to one hundred gigalitres. We've funded the Headquarters Dam in Tasmania and the extraordinary new network of irrigation facilities there throughout Tasmania to significantly improve food production there.

We've also, and I personally have given the environmental approval for the expansion of the irrigation system throughout the Ord in delivering the Ord Stage 2. And its extraordinary amount of water there, but the irrigation channel is relatively limited and some difficulties with salinity there that had to be worked through. But a fundamental massive shift in the productive use of water, which has occurred.

Anyone who wants to argue, as has been argued over the last twelve months or so, that in some way there is a resistance to the harvesting of water from this Government is simply dealing with the wrong set of facts.

Since 2006 environmental legislation has allowed more than fifteen various dam projects to go ahead. So if they're in the right location, if they're properly managed, the level of support for dams from the Government is unquestionable.

The next issue though is how do you run dams? There is always a balance here but you will find at different points, depending on what part of the season we're in, where dams are argued as a solution to electric power, to floods and to droughts. Dams can be used for all three, but you have to run them differently depending on what you're aiming to achieve.

There have been times where the arguments that have been out there publicly have tended to refer to dams in order to do all of these three things that will always be flowing, always will be empty and always will be full, a difficult way to manage a water system. But all of these different methods have an extent to which they can be used. The concept that all dams can be run in those ways simultaneously is a myth. It's a great slogan, but it is just plain wrong when you try to get it closer to the facts.

The main water story across our continent at the moment is a story about the Murray-Darling Basin. I want to get the concepts here of what we refer to so often as our food bowl in a simple context.

The first thing is the food security arguments which get argued tend to have a presumption that farmers will only use water for the growing of food. I don't have that view. I don't have that view, I think farmers have an entitlement once they've - once they have a legal entitlement to water they choose what they grow.

But I have found it odd when people have wanted to argue that somehow the growing of cotton and wine grapes is critical to Australia's food security. It's a silly argument and what we have is water being used for productive purposes that, of itself, is important. That, of itself, is a legitimate use. And the question becomes are we pulling too much water out of the rivers to maintain their health.

But to have a presumption that farmers should only be allowed to grow food with the water that they're using is simply not supported by current practice and not actually supported by any detailed look at the most productive uses of water in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Basin rainfall is in the order on long term average - and you have to go very long term to get any sort of averages across the Murray-Darling Basin for rainfall - but on long term rainfall we're talking in the order of 500,000 gigalitres that falls in the Basin, sounds like we shouldn't have a water problem. But of course the Basin includes a whole lot of land. How much makes it into the river? How much of that 500,000 gigalitres ends up as surface water flows? 32,800; so that's what we've got in the Darling, the Murray and the Murrumbidgee, the Lachlan, the different systems that flow in there.

How much of that 32,800 is extracted for irrigation? 13,700, so in terms of a river system we run it really hard. What do these volumes mean compared to other river systems, if you take the most extreme example, there is more water that will flow through the Amazon in a day than will flow through the end of the Murray-Darling in a year. So we don't have extraordinary amounts of water.

So then in Murray-Darling reform we work on the basis well what are we actually trying to achieve? Many people at different points of this debate, and the South Australian Premier has started to advance these arguments again over the last week, have wanted to say what the reform must be about to determine whether or not it's a good or a bad deal for the environment or for South Australia is to talk purely in terms of how many gigalitres across the basin.

Can I say that doesn't answer the question of why. Because the why question, what's the outcome you're trying to achieve has to drive the reform. What we're wanting to achieve is to restore ourselves to having a healthy working Basin.

We will never again go to complete natural flows; you'd have to remove every dam, every weir, get rid of every pump to have a complete natural system. But we want the system to be healthy again. And that means there are some minimum requirements that you need for the health of the Basin.

Now when we think about the need for reform we usually look at the extremes and get the concept of the reform wrong. The extremes that people normally look at are the depth years of the deepest drought or the peak years of the highest flood and depending on which they're in they say there you go this is why we need the reform so it doesn't look like this, or there you go there's heaps of water around we - nature's fixed it, we don't need a reform anymore.

Murray-Darling reform is about the in-between years. It's about the in-between years for this reason; you need to reserve in the in-between years enough environmental water to keep the system healthy enough that it approaches the drought years with a level of resilience.

The River Red Gums that hold so many of the banks together along the system, the River Red Gums we nearly lost during the last drought, not because there were too many drought years but because the River Red Gums had been living for years as though there were a drought and therefore did not have sufficient level of resilience when the drought actually hit.

Similarly there will be years when the mouth of the Murray closes, there have always even you know for centuries there have been years when the mouth of the Murray has been closed for a time. But for the health of the system and to flush salt out of the system, which is both an environmental requirement and a requirement to make the water useful for irrigation purposes, you need to make sure that you have a regular and sufficiently strong flow of water out the mouth of the Murray.

That is why I've set the benchmark of nine years out of ten as being the benchmark that preserves the basic environmental standards that we need to have a healthy working basin. But when you talk about total volumes without talking about the objectives, you run the risk that you can deliver the total volumes without actually delivering the reform.

I could find 4000 gigalitres across the north of the basin if I wanted and go up and start buying water up there at a premium price and the mouth of the Murray would be closed much more than one year out of ten, because I bought the water for the environment across the top of the system. To argue that somehow there is a massive benefit for South Australia in water that is bought across the top of the Darling system, simply does not match the sites.

If we buy a gigalitre of water in the north of the basin for environmental purposes, about ten per cent of it will reach the mouth of the Murray on average. If we buy water throughout the Murrumbidgee or Murray parts of the system, almost all of it will reach the mouth of the Murray.

If you buy it in the Darling up in the north, the other ninety per cent, because you've got the floodplains that it gets spread over and the loss to evaporation, it means that the water there, while it has an important environmental use across the north, and is important to the health of the Darling, to argue that that somehow makes a substantial difference to South Australia, runs against the grain of everything we know about the hydrology of the basin.

So I think it's essential that we get the arguments back to the fundamentals of what are we trying to achieve and there is an important argument to have about what are the environmental sites that need to be achieved? About what are the environmental sites that need to be achieved. An important argument about what are the environmental standards that we need to meet. An important argument about how do we do that while minimising the impact on communities while maximising opportunities for the productive use of water to be used as efficiently as possible.

All of those things are important arguments. But a game about this number of gigalitres verses that number of gigalitres without looking at where the water comes from and how it will be used is a political argument that lacks a policy grounding.

In terms then of what are we wanting to achieve. We want to restore the system to health. The numbers at the moment that are being talked about have a spread across catchments and the numbers have been reported widely as the latest thinking in the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, being in the order of two-thousand-eight-hundred gigalitres.

The significant changes that they've talked about there from numbers that appeared in the guide are largely changes across the north of the system, across their current thinking. But it is for the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to determine independently those issues.

I will raise in passing, because I know there's been some public concern about this, about the metrics that are applied to long term cap equivalent value of water. This is something which is under regular review and will be settled in the final basin plan next year.

We did have some eager people within the Department who did a good thing in terms of public information and updated information on Commonwealth environmental water holdings based on what was the latest thinking of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, before the issue had been settled. That information has been made public, which is fine. But I think it would be in error to read too much into numbers that are out there publicly. The long term capital equivalent value of water is something that will be settled in the final Murray-Darling Basin plan.

But I do have a view, which I've put publicly, that it is in everyone's interests for this to provide as much long term certainty as possible. I don't think it helps environmental planning, nor do I think it will be helpful to certainty for the productive use of water if we end up in a situation where these numbers are constantly shifting around. I do think there is a value for the water market and for certainty of entitlements in having as much stability in those numbers as possible. But as I say, they'll get settled in the plan.

So once you start with the question of what is it you're to achieve, you've then got the question of how do you get there. In getting there, there are a lot of myths that came out twelve months ago, which will emerge again in a few weeks' time.

But I get a few moments now with you to resolve the myth before a group of people go out and put them for a second time. So I'll enjoy the moment of policy accuracy. But I'm not naive. No matter what the Murray-Darling Basin Authority puts out in its draft plan, there are people who have already on each side of the debate organised their protests, booked their venues, have prepared their lines and are ready to be angry for opposite reasons.

That's because it's a big reform and big reforms do that. This is not a reform where you're going to be able to arrive at some consensus position where everyone says it's their ideal world. That won't be possible and I'm not going to pretend that that's possible. No one will have any legitimacy if the argue there's been a lack of consultation.

The consultation conducted by the Authority over the last twelve months has been extraordinary and I've certainly been out dealing with the various interests across the basin, through round tables and shed meetings up and down the basin, in a huge amount of detail and had my Department doing the same. So no-one will be able to argue about lack of consultation. But they will. But the important thing will be what's the nature of the reform?

Now, the first thing that was put a year ago that will be put soon, is that we are taking water way from irrigators. Wrong. If an irrigator does not choose to sell their water, we have no interest in buying it. The only water we have ever bought, the only water we're continuing to buy is water where someone has an entitlement and decides that they want to put all or part of it on the market.

Secondly, there is a water market, whether we are buying or not. So the argument that somehow the Government is creating a Swiss cheese effect of holes in irrigation systems is something that could be argued were there not a water market.

But if people don't sell water to us, it's not like there aren't other water traders on the market. We buy a fraction of what is put to us every time we run a tender. A fraction of what is put to us every time we buy a tender. So the argument that we are creating these holes in irrigation systems, which if the person having sold to us wants to re-buy water. They're welcome to do that at any point. They may sell their property. They may change their farming methods. They may be trading in and out all the time of the water market. That's a matter for them, because it's an entitlement that they hold.

So we don't have forced acquisition. But what we will have in a Murray-Darling Basin plan is levels that must be reached by 2019. Levels of water reserved for the environment that must be reached by 2019. So some people from the environmental side sometimes have argued well, nothing will happen now until 2019. Not true. I think it would be a very brave government decision that decided to do the entire reform of water recovery from the environment in the space of one year.

In fact, the best thing for communities is to steadily stage water recovery for the environment over time in an orderly way between now and 2019. There could not be a better time to actually be managing that transition. It's a much easier transition to be managing at a time when entitlements are coming out at one hundred per cent, when people actually have more water available because of the breaking of the drought. It's a harder time in terms of the political will because people want to see the debate in terms of are we solving the depth of drought. But in terms of transition for communities, there could not be a better time than now to be conducting this reform.

Now, in getting to 2019, let's not forget and let's work on the basis of the current thinking of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, which may or may not reflect what ends up in the final plan and because you've got that final period of consultation, that will only encourage the demos that will then follow.

But on the current - if you work on their current thinking of 2800 gigalitres, already we have recovered more than 1000 gigalitres for the environment. So there's more than one thousand of that where the job is already done.

A few weeks ago I signed off with the Victorian Minister, what's known as NVIRP Stages two and three. Out of that comes a further 214 gigalitres for the environment. So for the current amounts, when you include what's contracted there as well, we actually get, because it was more than 1000 - that gets us to 1250 gigalitres. Job already done.

You've got extra state priority projects which infrastructure money made available for the states which has been available for the states for some time. I know many people have felt a level of frustration on how quickly infrastructure money has got out of door. Can I say I've shared that frustration.

I've had extraordinary amounts of money, much more than a billion dollars, that was available to states more than a year ago which states then had changes to government and decided, well, they didn't want the money for those purposes, which is their call, and have wanted to re-profile.

Well, we're working with them, we're doing fresh due diligence, we're trying to re-profile, but no-one should be under any illusions as to why money of that order has been delayed in going for infrastructure. From the federal perspective it's been on the table and available for very significant amounts of money for more than a year, but those extra state priority projects are expected to bring in the order of a further 200 gigalitres for the environment through infrastructure efficiency.

That gets us on money that is already on the table, separate to buy-back, 1650 gigalitres available for the environment, leaving - if the authority ends up providing a final plan - in the order of 2800, meaning the additional job to be done is in the order of about 1150 gigalitres.

Because we've also got to add in there - sorry, I didn't mention Menindee. We have the Menindee project with New South Wales where they at the moment have unilaterally terminated the money which is on the table for the commonwealth for them, but we're now re-scoping it with officials, but it's believed you can get up to 200 gigalitres out of that as well.

That's how we get to the 1650, leaving an additional 1150 gigalitres to recover. The pace of recovery for that - when you think that we've got to the thousand, that we're more than a thousand that we're out now in the space of about four years - is over a much longer period as we edge towards 2019.

So the concept that there is rush for communities of a transition is wrong, but let me tell you, if we don't stay in the market and steadily purchase water from people who have made a decision that they want to put their water on the market, then as you get closer to 2019, there will be a rush or the reform will be dead.

If you want to do the right thing by communities and you want to do the right thing by the reform, it is essential that we continue the process of gradually acquiring water for the environment and doing so at a pace where given the delays in infrastructure spending mean that for the remainder of water that's expected to be spent on buy-back versus infrastructure, there's roughly double the money available for infrastructure purposes [over the next 4 years].

When you get money going through infrastructure purposes there, yes, you do get more water for the Commonwealth Environmental Water holder, but you also get an extraordinary benefit in updating the infrastructure for those who receive the funds. There's been problems in getting some of the money out to some areas where infrastructure has already become very much up-to-date. There are a number of catchments that have referred to this phenomenon and we're still working with them. The money is there to be spent. We want it to be spent on the best possible uses.

We don't want people to feel that in some way they've been punished for doing good work and we're having those discussions about how to unlock that, but for the money that's still to be spent, the major thrust of what is available is in infrastructure purposes and the money for water purchase must continue steadily.

If we don't do that, we will let down horribly communities, and they won't feel it yet, but make no mistake, if you try to run that sort of adjustment in the course of a couple of years from 2017 on, the pain throughout communities would be extraordinary and that's why we need to steadily move ahead with it and to continue the infrastructure spend which is providing not just water efficiencies but a whole lot of on-farm efficiencies through the work that's being done.

So you then get to the final piece of the puzzle. Having acquired all of the water, how do you use it? Or even having acquired as much as we have now, how do you use it? This involves turning on its head how we have managed water in the basin up until now. Up until now we've managed water to avoid floods and we've managed water for water storage purposes to keep it available for production.

With environmental water the concept is there will be throughout the basin amounts of water which are held for environmental purposes and that will mean there are some cases for specific environmental sites where they are actually deliberately flooded. That's what the River Red Gums need to be able to stay healthy.

You'll have areas where inundation is done deliberately or where water events are held to make sure that there is a particular flow rate going through the system at a particular time to make sure that we're flushing the salt out of the system. The new methods of managing environmental water in these volumes are things which will evolve and that it is a new way of managing water.

We've managed environmental water before and you've seen the successful events in the Snowy that were held only recently, but in these volumes this is new territory in many ways and particularly for the office of the Commonwealth Environmental Water holder. That's why I think it's so important that we get right down to the local level and local expertise to make sure that the water is being used in the most efficient environmental way as well.

I've spoken to the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder and have asked for a process to commence where we start to put together regional reference groups in each catchment. I want there to be reference groups at a local level that can help provide direct advice on the use of commonwealth environmental water. The local environmental sites, when people say can't it all just be about the sites and doesn't that answer the question, many, many of them, hundreds of them actually have never been measured and so the limits on the hydrology of how we deliver, there's good measurement on the icon sites, but for many of the other sites we don't have a history of good measurement and, therefore, there are local judgment calls and local information which will be tremendously helpful for the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder in working through these events.

The membership of the catchment reference groups for the use of Environmental Water holder is something that I'm still wanting to work through, but I do have a view that local catchment management authorities, I do have a view that local environmental interests and that local production interests and irrigation interests should all be represented.

Everybody wants to see, once the water is recovered, they want to see it used to the best possible and most efficient and environmental purpose and that's something which I think can only be made possible not from things that are run back here in Canberra but from a strong regional engagement at the local level.

So what do we get out of all of this? Out of all of this across the Murray Darling Basin we get a situation in the flood years where it won't look that different. We get a situation in the in-between years where levels of resilience for the ecology of the rivers doesn't decline the way it used to, it holds up, the River Red Gums don't start to get sick in advance of a drought.

And then when the drought hits it won't change the fact that allocations go down and allocations will go down for environmental water holdings just like they go down for irrigation water holdings, but the system will approach the drought in a standard of health that it has not seen for generations, and that means we end up with a system that can deliver us healthy rivers, strong communities and sustainable food production.

You don't get many windows like this in public policy to be able to get a once-in-a-generation reform right. The politics would be easier if we were in the depth of drought, but the transition for communities is easier because we're not, and while I accept that the starter's gun when it fires on the draft plan, there will be a whole lot of people who see a huge political interest to engage in misinformation, claim water's being ripped from communities, claim a whole lot of things. Let's not miss this opportunity.

Every other generation got this one wrong. If we get it right, it's better for irrigation, better for communities, better for people who drink from the Murray as well, for their water supply, but also better for the responsible job we have in looking at the one river system that goes right across our continent and saying we're not going to wreck it; we're going to restore it to health.