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Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage
The Hon Dr David Kemp, MP

13 September 2002

Opening Address to the Murray Darling Association Annual Conference

Ladies and gentlemen: You have chosen a very appropriate location for the 58th Annual Conference of the Murray Darling Association - which I take pleasure in opening today.

It is quite difficult, in fact, to imagine a place that could be more potently symbolic of the central - and the very far-reaching significance - of the role that the Murray Darling system plays in the social and the economic life of this country.

We are, here - in Whyalla - in one of the drier portions of the driest state, in the driest continent on the planet.

We are a vast distance from the headwaters of that system in far-off Queensland - and the Snowy Mountains - yet it is water from those far-off sources of the Darling, and of the Murray, that provide life - not only to this city, but to the others of South Australia's Iron Triangle - and to many other smaller towns - including, even, water for Woomera.

That is absolutely remarkable as an achievement, and it is great testimony to the determination of governments, of industry, and of individuals, from earlier and current generations, to maximise the benefits of this great river system to our country.

Whyalla is illustrative of the importance of the Murray-Darling for a reason other than the distance we are from the source of its water- and that is for the use to which the water is put.

The dominant use of water from the Murray-Darling is, overwhelmingly, for agriculture - to the tune of some 95%.

Here it has enabled the Iron Triangle to develop into a nationally significant industrial region - with lead smelting, steel making and fabrication and, at its peak, ship-building.

Clearly, without the Morgan-Whyalla pipeline, NONE of these developments could have occurred.

And without the duplication of the original 1940's pipeline in the sixties - the tremendous expansion of production at Whyalla, particularly in the seventies, simply COULD not - WOULD not - have occurred.

Most significantly, and centrally, NONE of this could have happened without the Murray-Darling - our one, great, national river system - for the simple reason that there is no other source of water in the State, let alone in the region, sufficient to feed industry, and the cities that developed around it.

In fact this is true, to a much wider extent, of the importance of the Murray-Darling system to South Australia as a whole.

Adelaide, in dry years, relies on the Murray for up to 90% of its water.

Adelaide would not exist, certainly not as a vibrant city of over a million people, but for the Murray.

Upstream, well beyond the SA border, its significance is just as profound.

The Murray-Darling basin - covering southern Queensland, much of New South Wales and Victoria, as well as South Australia, provides an annual economic input to the national economy of some $23 billion, with almost half of that measured in agricultural income.

In terms of irrigated agriculture, the waters of the basin provide fully 70% of national consumption, enabling production from over 1.5 million hectares of land.

Of total annual average use of some 10,000 gigalitres of water from the Murray-Darling - around 95% goes to irrigation, but beyond the riverine environment, the resources of the basin are even more important to farming and grazing.

Non-irrigated farming contributes some $7 billion to the national economy.

The pastoral sector contributes around $3 billion more.

Some 25% of the national cattle herd, and 50% of all the sheep in Australia, are on properties within the basin.

It is home to 2 million people and another million beyond it are almost totally reliant on its resources - including its water.

This is an absolutely massive contribution to the economic and social fabric of Australia - from just one river basin.

It is a contribution that is now under threat, and it is a contribution that we must preserve.

What we are now becoming increasingly aware of is that the land use change which, in concert with the water and the other natural resources of the basin, generated this great economic and social good, has had a very high cost - in environmental terms - to a level that now threatens not just the environmental sustainability of the basin, but its economic and its social sustainability as well.

One of the most dramatic of these realities, and threats, is of course, salinity.

Salt interception schemes have been in place - in the irrigation areas of the Murray - for nearly 40 years, but it is only relatively recently that we have became aware of the extent, and the nature, and the insidiousness, of the longer term threat.

The Salinity Audit published by the Murray Darling Basin Commission in 1999 provided shocking news - by indicating that dryland salinity - salinity resulting from land use change for farming and grazing - typically long distances from the riverine environment - but intricately linked to it - would provide a massive salt input to the river by 2050.

The projection, in that Audit, was that in the Mallee zone, from Swan Hill to the SA border, salt inputs will increase from the current base of some 280,000 tonnes per year by 110,000 tonnes a year by 2050 and that, on the SA side of the border, the expected increase is from 330,000 tonnes to 610,000 tonnes.

The impact of this mobilisation of salt for South Australia is expected to be immense. The audit produced projections that salt levels in the Murray at Morgan would reach 900 EC within 100 years and would exceed 800 EC about 50% of the time as early as 2020.

If this scenario eventuates it would mean a virtual doubling of the current level of salt entering the river by 2050 and would mean that the potability of Murray water, for the great bulk of South Australians who rely upon it, could be marginal as early as 2020.

The wider ramifications of that salinity, in terms of land that could potentially be lost to productive use, or where productivity could be reduced, is equally frightening.

In terms of irrigated land, the threat is estimated to be to 869,00 hectares - or virtually half of all land under irrigation in the basin - by 2015.

Clearly, managing and reducing salinity is one of the greatest challenges we confront in terms of ensuring that the basin is put back on a sustainable footing, both environmentally, and economically.

But it is far from the only challenge.

The great wealth we have generated from the Murray and its basin, and the way we went about achieving it, has also had a range of other environmental impacts.

The "snapshot" of the health of the system, conducted for the Murray Darling Basin Commission last year by the Independent Audit Group, showed that along some 40% of the river length the biota of the system was significantly impaired.

Over 95% of the river's length has suffered some degree of environmental degradation and 30% has been substantially modified.

Sixteen of 35 fish species in the basin are listed as threatened, and fish populations are in a poor to extremely poor state throughout the Murray.

There are at least 35 endangered birds and 16 endangered mammals. Twenty mammals are extinct.

Riparian vegetation for the length of the river is rated as poor.

Wetland quality is significantly reduced.

Most recently, we have had to confront what is, symbolically, perhaps, the ultimate symbol of the cost of this broadscale environmental degradation, and that is the impending closure of the Murray mouth.

It last happened in 1981. It is likely to be a reality again within weeks.

On Tuesday the Murray-Darling Basin Commission will meet to determine how to restrict the damage to the Coorong - which is severely threatened by the closure.

Simply, the lack of interchange of salt and fresh water threatens to turn the Coorong into a slowly warming pool over summer.

The impact of this, on the biota of that unique system, could be extremely destructive, in terms of the entire food chain - so there is no question but that the mouth has to be kept open - even though that will be by engineering means - at least in the short term.

The potency of the closure, as a symbol of the problems the river confronts, cannot be overstated.

The longer term answer can only be increased flows in the river, which engages two very large issues indeed, only one of which we have any substantive control over - and that is the amount of water we take, in total, from the river.

The other, over which we have very little control, is the extent of run-off across the system which, this year, as in many others in this land of notoriously unreliable rainfall, is generating a crisis of its own.

The total amount of water held in Murray storages, as we sit here today, on the edge of the peak irrigation season over summer, is the lowest in 20 years.

That would be more an uncomfortable - but not an unprecedented or disastrous circumstance - if we expected a strong spring run-off . Sadly, it looks as though that might not occur.

Winter has been extremely dry, right across the catchment and snow, although widespread, is shallow.

We can hope for a wet spring, and even a wet summer, but the forecasters suggest to us that there will be a continuation of the drought that has afflicted much of the catchment now - in many areas of it for several seasons.

If this proves to be the case then it will probably be November 2003 before we can reasonably expect to see a flow at the mouth - IF we get a winter and spring next year with run-off sufficient to fill depleted storages, and still reach Goolwa.

As a result of the current state of storages, the Murray Darling Basin Commission is now maximising flows through the Barma choke in order to ensure South Australia will have its entitlement, stored in Lake Victoria, for next autumn.

It needs to have that job done by December, lest the unseasonal flooding of the Barma-Millewah forest that would be associated with longer release causes severe damage.

In the upstream storages of Hume, and Dartmouth, unless there are major changes in rainfall patterns in the meantime, the lack of water by the end of this summer will be acute. Hume is already under great stress.

On the Darling, the Menindee system is already virtually dry, at least in terms of viable levels for extractions - and if there is not run-off from a succession of monsoonal systems this summer, Broken Hill will face very severe water shortages next year.

Irrigators, in the Riverina district of New South Wales, in particular, are looking at very severe restrictions this year.

In short, we are confronting one of the worst short-term scenarios for water in the system in living memory.

I'm sorry that what I have provided you with amounts to such a depressing synopsis of both the historical, and some more immediate problems confronting the basin and the millions of Australians who rely upon it, both economically and environmentally -- but these are issues at which we simply cannot baulk.

If we are going to be successful in confronting the scale of the challenges we confront then we simply cannot avoid taking their measure, so we can tailor our actions to meet them.

We must do our best in the short term to deal with the vagaries of a particular season - and I assure you the MDBC is doing all it can to best juggle existing resources.

The only thing we can do for the Murray mouth in the short term is to implement the engineering solution at hand - but in terms of the longer term, we can be much more constructive, and positive.

Your intention here, over the next two days, is to see how best local government might continue to expand its engagement in this now crucial challenge to achieve sustainability across this system.

The first thing to be said, to help your level of concentration, is that there is now no question but that we must all be successful.

That is a bottom line for your conference and for your organisation, as much as it is for the Commonwealth and the States and for the community at large.

The stakes are simply too high to contemplate any other outcome, and I want to say that I am, ultimately, despite the scale of the challenge as I've outlined it, an optimist, certainly for the medium to longer term.

I strongly believe that, contrary to the views of some, who suggest that little is being done, that a very great deal is being done, by all tiers of government and by the wider community, to establish the basis and the beginnings of what is going to have to be a multi-generational effort to ensure the economic, social, and environmental future of the basin.

As much as we would wish to wave a magic wand, the reality is that it is going to take some decades at least, to stabilise and manage some of the more intractable challenges, and it may well be a hundred years or more before some of the damaging processes we have set in train over the past 150 years can be nullified. Salinity is particularly long lived, under some circumstances.

The key thing, at this stage, is that the commitment be there to get on with the job, and I would assure you that commitment IS most definitely in place in terms of the Commonwealth.

In April the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council put forward for discussion scenarios for increased environmental flows in the Murray.

This is one of the most basic issues we have to engage.

Improved environmental flows are crucial to the Murray mouth, and the Coorong. Without an exchange of salt and fresh water that iconic Ramsar listed wetland will continue to degrade.

Better environmental flows, associated with flow management, are important for many other wetlands along the river, particularly at Barma-Millewah, and at the highly stressed Chowilla wetland in South Australia.

Increased environmental flows are important for riverine wetlands not only for the flora, but for fauna, including providing breeding opportunities for water birds, and for the rebuilding fish numbers - not least Murray Cod, which spawns on the floodplains.

This is, in turn, important for the professional fisheries, where they continue, and for recreational fishers.

Improved environmental flows will reduce the risk of algal blooms.

They will help ensure riverine vegetation generally remains in a state capable of encouraging and maintaining the tourism industry.

And improved environmental flows will help in the dilution of salt.

The Council has put forward three scenarios - for savings of 350 gigalitres, 750 gigalitres, and 1500 gigalitres, to be returned to the river for environmental flows - with a decision scheduled for late next year, after community consultation -- which began in July and which is ongoing.

This is an extension of the 1996 cap on extractions and is nothing less than historic, in terms of the effort to restore and save the Murray.

It is disappointing that fate has delivered us a circumstance whereby this process is now being conducted as we enter a summer where the stress on the system is going to translate to stress for so many of the people who rely on it for their livelihood.

Such circumstances are going to make it that much harder to achieve the sort of consensus that has to underpin support for more environmental water for the Murray - and I sincerely hope that we will be able to keep to our timetable of October next year - for at least a decision on what scale of environmental flows we will be able to achieve over the coming decade.

While environmental flow is a crucial issue that's now being addressed by government and the community, in meetings across the relevant states, there are two other massive efforts underway by the Commonwealth, and the States, which strongly engage local government, to address the challenges, which confront the Murray.

They are the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality, and the five-year extension of the Natural Heritage Trust.

Their significance, both in terms of the battle to achieve sustainability in the Basin, and in terms of meeting the wider environmental challenges facing the country, can barely be over-stated -- in my view.

These are the two largest environmental protection and repair policies ever undertaken in this country.

Under the National Action Plan - the NAP, as it's known - the Commonwealth and the collective States, are each putting forward $700 million - for a $1.4 billion program - to begin a cooperative battle against salinity.

The Prime Minister has identified salinity as the greatest environmental threat confronting Australia - and I don't think anybody would gainsay that judgment.

In particular, in terms of the topic today, salinity is, indisputably, the greatest threat to the sustainability of the Murray-Darling basin - environmentally, economically, and socially.

The $1 billion extension of the Natural Heritage Trust, which has already spent some $1.5 billion on remedial and protective work, is the second of the Commonwealth inspired programs around which we seek the community to rally, and which I say signals, very clearly and unambiguously, the extent of the recognition by the Commonwealth of the scale of the task we confront as a nation to achieve sustainability.

A third major indicator is the establishment, by the Prime Minister, of the Sustainable Environment Committee of Cabinet, which provides a whole of government perspective on the need for sustainability across the entire range of government policies.

I won't go through the detail on each of these programs.

Simply, the NAP has 21 priority regions across the country, in areas where salinity is emerging as a particular problem, and where community based bodies in each region will inform the decisions of the Commonwealth and the relevant State in prioritising spending.

The $1 billion committed to the extension of the Natural Heritage Trust will also be based largely on community input across four main areas of Landcare, Bushcare, Coastcare and Rivercare.

These are the programs, based on community structures, that I hope you will address yourselves to - at least in considerable measure - over these next two days.

There is ample opportunity for a significant contribution by local government, and it is the sincere hope of the Commonwealth that, wherever possible, local government will be active leaders and partners in regional solutions.

The engagement of local government in natural resource management and planning was in fact discussed at the meeting of the Council of Australian Governments in April, and there was a consensus on the need for local government to be adequately represented on natural resource management boards, especially for the Trust, and for local government to be engaged in the development of regional plans.

The Commonwealth is seeking to have these principles included in the bilateral agreements we are negotiating with the States for the NHT.

What I want to especially emphasise is that what is being established by the Commonwealth, through these programs is a deliberate, and a central push, for a community based effort to achieve sustainability.

It is my firm view that while government - at all levels - Commonwealth, State, and local - can and should lead - it is also my firmly held view that if we are not successful in engaging the community, and convincing the community that it has to engage in a hands-on commitment to sustainability, then our chances of success are severely diminished - if not indeed dashed.

It is my view that we will NOT be successful unless all tiers of government are successful in recruiting the community to engage - and I commend that approach to you, perhaps above all others, in your deliberations.

The community has shown itself prepared to be remarkably responsive.

The growing awareness of - not simply the importance of this task - but the imperative nature of the task - is permeating Australian society, I think quite deeply.

Some community based groups, such as the Landcare movement, in fact provided community leadership to some aspects of the problem before governments had begun to take serious steps.

In the first phase of the Natural Heritage Trust, almost 400,000 Australian took an active role in a vast range of restorative and protective efforts.

So I would offer to you, as you consider how local government might best engage the sustainability issue, that you also adopt such an approach: In my view the first test of whatever approach you adopt needs to be whether it will engender the support of your community.

Clearly, recognition of this type of interdependence was a key motivation in the very beginnings of the Murray Darling Association: recognition of interdependence, and shared responsibility, and commitment, by local government right across the basin.

I applaud what you seek to achieve, which is better ways for local government to engage in the natural resource management and environmental issues that are the keys to the achievement of sustainability - and I look forward to meeting a delegation of the Association, in the wake of your conference, to learn what you propose, and to consider how I might assist in furthering you aims.

That is an invitation I hope you will take up, and I note that you recently commissioned, and have completed, a scoping study on just those issues.

I would expect that very wide-ranging document will inform your considerations over the next two days and that it might be an aspect of a discussion I look forward to.

In anticipation of that I have asked officers from my department to consider the study and give me their views, ahead of those discussions, because there is no doubt that local government is an extremely important element of the governmental mix if we are going to achieve the community based effort that will have the critical mass, and the commitment, to meet the tasks we jointly confront.

I wish you well in your deliberations, and I repeat, in conclusion, that there is simply no alternative to success in what we seek to achieve.

In environmental terms, we have a great responsibility to restore, as best we can, and to the extent we can, the environmental values of the Murray-Darling system.

But our responsibility is in fact far wider.

Sustainability is not about the environment alone.

Sustainability is also about maintaining the way of life, and the economies that support it, whether that be, in the terms of our South Australian hosts, the lifestyle and the economy for the fruit growers at Cadell, or at Ramco or Waikerie, or Barmera or Renmark - or in the industrial cities of the Iron Triangle or, for that matter, in the suburbs of Adelaide.

If we fail to save the Murray, we will fail to save its economy, and we will, at the very least, dramatically reduce the lifestyle and the economic aspirations of literally millions of Australians.

They are the stakes.

Thank you for the opportunity to open your conference.

Commonwealth of Australia