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February 25, 2001
Just over 100 years ago, leading figures from the various Australian colonies were holding a series of debates and conventions that would eventually lead to Federation.
The question of who would control rivers under a Federation was prominent in these debates - the Murray-Darling system having a particular focus due to rivalries and suspicions among the eastern colonies.
There were strong calls for the new Commonwealth to have control of rivers, especially those that flowed across colonial boundaries.
The New South Wales Treasurer had argued for Commonwealth control of rivers for navigation, irrigation and the conservation of water. He argued then:
"These (rivers) run through different colonies and if economically managed by one power, equitably dealing with all the rights of the different states, they may be great sources of wealth in the future."
Generally, however, those who argued for Commonwealth control were more concerned with rights of navigation, which was threatened by water extractions. Some even argued for draining the river for irrigation - conservation did not loom large.
One of those, however, who helped defeat the move, the Victorian Premier, said:
"The question of the conservation of water would scarcely be raised between two states."
Famous last words!
But we should not judge the participants in these pre-federation debates too harshly. The idea as advanced by another Victorian delegate of completely draining the Murray for irrigation may seem laughable to us today but just 30 years ago a similar proposal was put forward to pump water from the Murrumbidgee to Adelaide, leaving the Murray "to carry only drainage and flood flows." Fortunately the cost of the proposal made it uneconomic.
One hundred years later, Australian governments remain committed to the Federal model with each State managing the resource within its boundaries.
But with a cross-boundary issue such as the Murray Darling, this will only work effectively if each State respects the interests of all others and the nation as a whole.
This has not always been so in the past.
A genuinely cooperative Federalism in word and deed must be the commitment of all stakeholders in this our Centenary year.
There is no more important challenge for our Federation.
This does not mean that there have not been successes. Even the fact that the debate now incorporates all users - including the relatively new concept of the allocation of water for the environmental health of the river system - is a sign of progress.
The Murray Darling Basin Commission has made significant gains in addressing the issue of salinity associated with irrigation practices.
The Commonwealth's Natural Heritage Trust has seen the investment of $196 million for work under the Murray Darling 2001 Initiative. Another $80 million has been allocated to natural resource projects throughout the Basin under Trust programs such as Landcare and Bushcare.
The Trust has also been able to support community efforts to restore degraded wetlands within the basin - efforts that will have an inestimable benefit to the overall health of the rivers.
The science upon which we make our decisions has also developed significantly. For example, the 1999 Salinity Audit was able to highlight the threat that would be posed to Adelaide's drinking water within the next two decades if urgent remedial action is not taken now.
So we are equipped to meet the challenges posed in managing this great natural resource and national icon back to health. Most importantly, as underlined by today's forum and The Australian newspaper's successful series on the Murray, the broader community better understands the importance of what we are trying to achieve and is urging us to even further increase our efforts.
Whatever the Constitutional structure, the Commonwealth will continue to show leadership in this national effort but a genuinely cooperative federalism requires a new commitment from all stakeholders.
As a starting point, we urgently need to address the issue of the quantity of water that currently flows through the Murray-Darling system - including the allocation of water for environmental flows. The Commonwealth again recently showed its leadership on this issue by allocating $75 million from the corporatisation of the Snowy Mountain Power Scheme to achieve increased flows in the Murray.
In 1997 the States, with the exception of Queensland, set a cap on water extractions and diversions at 1993/94 levels. This precautionary action was aimed at giving the river system breathing space while we assessed on a more scientific basis the future flows required to restore and maintain the system's health. Work done since the implementation of the Cap is suggesting that we need to consider taking even less water from the system.
The Murray Darling Basin Commission has been asked to develop a Sustainable Rivers Audit to assess river health across all major river valleys of the basin which will give us a more complete picture.
Regrettably to date, Queensland has refused to apply a cap despite mounting evidence of the adverse implications for the Murray-Darling system of the rapidly increasing water diversions from that State's rivers. Premier Beattie is said to have run a bold election campaign. The leadership test for Mr Beattie now is whether he will immediately accept and implement the Cap and finalise water management plans for his State's rivers - plans that are now more than 3 years overdue. New South Wales also needs to lift its game in terms of implementing the Cap as last year's audit process revealed areas of non-compliance in that State.
Along with the need to manage water extractions from streams and rivers, there is also a growing challenge for the States to address the increasing use of on-farm storages and diversions that prevent water from reaching the river in the first place. For example, off-stream storages in the Condamine-Balonne in Queensland more than tripled in the period between 1993/94 and mid-1999.
But apart from water quantity, we urgently need to make progress on water quality issues such as salinity, turbidity and nutrient levels.
The Murray Darling Basin Commission has released a draft Integrated Catchment Management Policy Statement.
This statement sets out natural resource management strategies for the next ten years including setting and implementing targets for water quality, water sharing, riverine ecosystem health and terrestrial biodiversity.
As part of this framework, a Salinity Management Strategy will be agreed to by the Ministerial Council next month which will, for the first time, set end of valley targets for salinity in each of the 21 catchments within the Basin. Through this strategy we will confront the salinity problem through an increased program of engineering interventions, revegetation and greater water efficiency.
Complementing this work will be the delivery of the Prime Minister's National Action Plan on Salinity and Water Quality. This plan will provide $1.4 billion to integrated natural resource management efforts in 20 regions across Australia - almost half of which lie within the Murray Darling Basin. Importantly, the funding is dependent on the States preventing landclearing where it would lead to unacceptable land or water degradation. Most landclearing in Queensland is still in the Murray Darling Basin. It also requires the States to place caps on water extractions from rivers that are approaching over-allocation.
Finally there is the issue of adapting to a river system that has been greatly modified. This will require our researchers and landholders to develop new land use methods and even new crops in an effort to help minimise our continued impact on the natural system.
As we enter our second century as a nation, we are able to better manage this great resource. We understand the problems, we know the solutions and as a nation we have the financial resources - it is now a matter of all parties joining together to get the job done.
For more than 200 years we have been living off the river - now we are learning to live with it.