Department of the Environment

Archived media releases and speeches

The Hon Tony Burke MP

Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

Murray-Darling Basin reform

Speech
24 November 2011

I rise to confirm to the House that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority will release a Draft Plan for the Murray-Darling Basin on Monday 28th November.

In developing this plan, the Authority, led by chair Craig Knowles has worked closely with irrigator groups, environment groups, scientists, local and state community leaders and state and territory governments of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and the ACT.

The Draft Plan is required to be built on the foundations of the best available science and to optimise the environmental, social and economic outcomes. 

Across Australia, everyone understands the challenges we face in the driest inhabited continent. In most of the country we have an ongoing cycle described as droughts and flooding rains. This cycle won’t change.

It is a cycle which presents challenges for our food and fibre producers.

It is a cycle felt acutely in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Of the water which makes its way into basin rivers and creeks, more than 40 per cent on average is diverted for human use. We run our river system hard. 

Inevitably in this debate, arguments will occur about whether a particular policy position is good for irrigators or good for environmentalists; good for South Australia or good for Victoria and New South Wales, for the ACT or Queensland. 

The Guide to the Draft Plan proposed a recovery range of between 3,000 gigalitres and 4,000 gigalitres long-term average.

So inevitably, some irrigators will compare the Draft Plan to the 3,000 gigalitre scenario and some environmentalists will compare it to the 4,000 scenario.

A debate about numbers doesn't answer the question about what we are trying to achieve. What we want to achieve is a healthy, working Murray-Darling Basin.

There has been a tendency to look at the extreme scenarios in considering Murray-Darling Basin reform – the years of deepest drought or the years of the highest flood.

During times of drought, people have argued the case for reform as if we could prevent a future drought. And in the wet years, I hear it argued that there is plenty of water around and nature has fixed the problem so we don’t need water reform anymore.

Murray-Darling Basin reform is about the in-between years. It's about the in-between years because you need to keep the system healthy enough so it can approach the drought years with a level of resilience.

An example of building resilience is the iconic River Red Gums.

We nearly lost vast tracts of Red Gums during the last drought. Not simply because of the drought itself, but because the Red Gums had been living for years as though there was only ever drought.

They had been dry for so long that they did not have a sufficient level of resilience when the drought actually hit.
For the health of the system and to flush salt out of the Murray — which is both an environmental requirement and a requirement to ensure water  is suitable for productive use – we need to ensure regular and strong flows of water out of the river’s mouth.

That’s why I've set the benchmark that the Murray Mouth should be open nine years out of 10. This benchmark preserves the basic environmental standards that we need for a healthy working river system.

Considering total volumes without talking about the objectives risks delivering on the total volumes without delivering on the reform.

It is essential to get the arguments back to the fundamentals of what we are trying to achieve in the Murray-Darling Basin.

We want to restore the system to health. 

Murray-Darling Basin reform has been put in the too hard basket for too long.

This Government is committed to reform for the Murray-Darling Basin that will restore our rivers to health, support strong regional communities and sustainable food production.‪

That’s why we are making record investments in infrastructure projects to improve irrigation efficiency and get more water back to the environment.

And Commonwealth environmental water is being used to help achieve a healthy, working Murray-Darling Basin.

When the Murray-Darling Basin Authority presents its Draft Plan for the Basin, it will inevitably generate significant debate. But we should not expect a consensus position.

In different parts of the Murray-Darling Basin, different communities have different things at stake.

That’s why when the Murray-Darling Basin Authority presents its Draft Plan, understandably there will be protests from environmentalists saying that the numbers are too low and protests from the same people that were burning books a year ago saying that the numbers are too high.

The consultation conducted by the Authority over the last 12 months has been significant, and I have also been working with representative groups and organisations as well as state governments across the Murray-Darling Basin.

It’s important to dispel a few myths that were put forward a year ago and will be put forward again soon.

The first is the myth that we are forcibly taking water from irrigators. This is wrong.

If irrigators do not choose to sell their water or participate in our programs, the Government has no interest in compelling them to do so. The only water the Government has ever bought is water from someone who has an entitlement and decides to put all or part of their water on the market for sale at a price they choose themselves.

If people don't sell water to the Government, there are still other water traders on the market. The Government has only bought a portion of what is put to it each time a tender is run. And if a person who sold the Government water wants to re-enter the market to buy either temporary or permanent water, they can. 

Secondly, there is a water market, whether the Government is buying or not.

The concept of the swiss-cheese effect within irrigation districts can occur at any time either through irrigators selling their entire entitlement to the Government or to other irrigators.

What we will have in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is a sustainable diversion limit that must be reached by 2019.

The best thing for communities is to steadily stage water recovery for the environment over time between now and 2019. There is no better time to pursue that transition than now, when allocations against entitlements are at or close to 100 per cent and people have more water because of the breaking of the drought. 

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority has advised that 1068 gigalitres has already been recovered which will count toward achieving the new sustainable diversion limits.

Recently I signed an agreement with the Victorian Water Minister for the second stage of the Northern Victorian Irrigation Renewal Project. 

This project will provide a further 214 gigalitres of water for the environment. This projects takes us to 1282 gigalitres. 

Based on remaining investment from the Sustainable Rural Water Use and Infrastructure Program, we are projecting an additional 400 gigalitres of water which will be recovered through on and off-farm infrastructure and environmental works and measures.

This would take us to 1682 gigalitres of water recovered for the environment with the remaining water needed, to be recovered over the next eight years.

The myth that there is rush for communities to achieve the transition is wrong. The transition will be gradual.

The next drought will come and we must not stand still waiting for it.
Over the next four years, there will be a prioritisation of funding for infrastructure projects compared to water purchases.  These projects make more water available for the environment and deliver an extraordinary benefit in upgrading infrastructure for producers.

Water recovery must continue at a steady pace. If we don’t do that, we will let communities down horribly and they will feel the pain of required adjustment later.

Out of all this reform in the Murray-Darling Basin, at first glance, in the flood years it won’t look that different.

But we will have 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.
And when drought hits, 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 experienced for generations.

We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get the reform right.

When the starter’s gun fires and the Draft Plan for the Murray-Darling Basin is released, there will be people who will see a huge political interest to engage in misinformation, to claim water’s being ripped from communities, to claim a whole lot of things.

But let’s not miss this opportunity. 

The right reform is better for irrigation, better for communities, better for people who drink from the Murray, and better for their water supply.

It is better for the one river system that stretches across our continent.  We can say we’re not going to wreck it; we’re going to restore it to health.

Mr Speaker, the Government is committed to tabling a final Murray-Darling Basin plan in the Parliament in 2012 that restores our rivers to health, supports strong regional communities and sustainable food production for the future.

ENDS