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In the closing days of this century, we are winding down for the Christmas-New Year break, planning holidays and making final preparations for the much hyped millennium bug or Y2K as it is termed.

For some suspicious families, those preparations are as simple as buying extra cans of tinned food just in case the bug bites harder than expected.

For Australian businesses and governments, the task has been much more complex and expensive with an estimated $15 billion spent on preparations.

Preparations for Y2K have become almost a national obsession.

It has required huge investments by government and industry and strategic planning on a scale unseen before. It has reached into every Australian community, business and household.

It has not been difficult to create awareness within the community of the need to act quickly to find a solution to the Y2K problem.

Images of planes falling out of the sky, traffic chaos, communication breakdowns and food riots have been simple, effective and, most importantly, newsworthy images for the media to promote the urgency of dealing with Y2K.

As a nation, we have taken timely action on Y2K despite the expense and human effort involved.

We have understood that failure to act now could have massive economic and civil repercussions.

The Australian environment - and the Murray Darling Basin in particular - is currently gripped by Mother Nature's own version of Y2K - salinity.

And yet I don't sense the same type of national urgency about this problem - which is surprising, given that the impacts of salinity read like an impending disaster of almost biblical proportions:

Perhaps because salinity doesn't have a definite deadline we assume we can defer corrective measures.

Perhaps it is because salinity doesn't immediately reach into Australian homes like Y2K has reached into home computers.

Ironically, like Y2K, our problems with salinity are due to human error.

Just as no one saw that having a digital date in computers would create havoc at the turn of the next century, no one understood that how we used our land would ultimately threaten towns, industries and even entire cities.

Massive land clearing was once seen as the only way to reap financial rewards from our soils. It's estimated that more than 12 billion trees have been cleared from the Murray Darling Basin since European settlement.

Compounding the impact of clearing too many trees was the increasing diversion of water from our rivers for irrigation purposes, dramatically reducing the rivers' natural flows.

Every so often we get a wake-up call from our scientific community on the impacts of land clearing and water diversion, such as the recent Murray Darling Basin Commission's Salinity Audit which predicted that within 20 years, South Australia's major source of water would not pass World Health Organisation drinking standards on 2 days out of 4.

Every day of the year the people of Morgan can watch nearly 300 semi-trailer loads of salt pass by. But you won't see these truckloads on the main road through town. These loads of salt flow silently past in the waters of the Murray River - 3 tonnes a minute - and it's getting worse.

Even more alarming is the Salinity Audit's finding that much of the salt mobilised by the tree clearing does not get exported out to sea. It stays in the landscape or is diverted into irrigation areas and floodplain wetlands. The Audit estimates that of the 5 million tonnes of salt mobilised each year, about 3 million tonnes is retained somewhere in the landscape, and this will increase over the next 100 years. The long-term impact of this is simply unknown.

Our Coorong is an internationally recognised wetland located at the bottom of the Murray Darling Basin. Not surprisingly therefore it is bearing the brunt of extractions of water from the river and the increasing salt loads. It is one of 30,000 wetlands in the Murray Darling Basin.

The Coorong is a summer refuge for migratory waterbirds, some coming from as far away as Siberia.

Thirty years ago a single flock of small migratory shorebirds contained an estimated 250,000 birds. Now the numbers are around 10,000 or less.

The publication I am officially launching today - A User's Guide to the River Murray in South Australia - underlines the importance of the river to our state and its people.

The river provides more than 40% of Adelaide's water during a normal year and up to 90% during droughts.

Speaking as a South Australian, I don't believe that I'm being melodramatic when I say that if we continue to strangle our river, we will inevitably strangle our State.

But it is not only self-interest as a South Australian which drives my concerns about the Murray-Darling river system.

While South Australia will suffer the worst and the soonest if the system is allowed to continue to decline, those users of the river in the eastern states would be foolish to believe that they or their industries are immune from the impact of their actions.

Through the Murray Darling Basin Commission, we have the best framework for national action to reverse the trend. Indeed, it is regarded internationally as being world's best practice.

But the Commission will only ever be as strong as the commitment brought to it by its members - the Commonwealth and NSW, Victorian, South Australian, Queensland and ACT Governments.

Unfortunately, we have recently seen that politics rather than good science and good sense is still the strongest driving force in this decision-making area.

The recent Victorian State election saw a change of Government following a promise from the ALP to a key independent MP about restoring 28% flows to the Snowy River.

Such a commitment should be causing widespread concern in South Australia and among those who understand the parlous state of the Murray-Darling system.

Water from the Snowy River is diverted for power generation purposes and to provide water to the Murray-Darling Basin for drought insurance.

The Snowy cannot be even partially restored without an impact on the Murray-Darling Basin unless we find a way to make savings in the current levels of water extracted from the western flowing rivers.

For years scientists have argued that water from the Murray Darling was wasted in inefficient irrigation practices. The Cooperative Research Centre for Freshwater Ecology estimates that 14% of gross water consumption across the basin is lost in transmission.

So savings are possible - at a price.

When the Victorian Labor Party required more water for the Snowy to win office it and the New South Wales Government agreed this water could be found.

And where did they intend to find it? Well, increased efficiencies, of course!

And of course more recently, they have suggested the Commonwealth should share the cost.

I will certainly recall the ease with which Victoria and NSW have identified these efficiency savings when it comes to reassessing the Cap on Murray Darling extractions next year!

The objective of providing environmental flows for the Snowy is a laudable goal.

But it concerns me that decisions are being taken to appeal to populist notions that the Snowy River deserves special attention rather than environmental and economic logic.

It concerns me that decisions are being taken in Melbourne and Sydney without a full understanding of the consequences on the lives of thousands of families who use the water to irrigate Australia's food bowl along the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers and of the consequences of cutting off future options for increased environmental flows.

Apart from the immediate and obvious role of politics in this sudden conversion of the eastern-State Governments, I of course would welcome increased efficiency in the way we use our water resources and water savings that follow.

But then decisions as to how to best utilise those savings must be made in the national interest based on the best available science and with an eye on long-term environmental impacts not short-term political gains.

It seems to me that some of those who have blindly pre-determined that any new environmental water savings should go to the Snowy fail to appreciate how important to Australia, the modified Murray, has become.

As the Users Guide that we are launching today notes, some 80% of South Australia's population are now dependent on the River for its supply of water.

In South Australia alone, the Murray supports dryland and irrigated agriculture worth over $500 million each year and the cities of Whyalla, Port Augusta, and Port Pirie are almost totally dependent on the river to assist in its manufacturing industries worth $1 billion annually.

The Murray-Darling Basin produces 75 per cent of Australia's irrigated crops.

And they don't seem to realise how stressed the Murray is even with existing flows.

With the ever-increasing problems of salinity, it seems obvious that the River Murray will need more water not less if it is going to be able to partially cleanse itself by expelling the salt to the sea.

A draft management plan for the Coorong released a few weeks ago has identified what needs to be done to save this great natural asset. First is the need for a significant increase in flows at least 6 years out of 10 to flush the system.

The issue is therefore, if water can be found as a result of the efficiencies identified by the NSW and Victorian Governments, should it be returned to the Murray or the Snowy?

It is interesting to note the recent observations of the retiring chairman of the Murray Darling Commission, Professor John Lovering, that the Snowy still enjoys a flow of 55% of its average natural flow at its mouth while the Murray sees only 21%.

But the States are not alone in the need to make sound decisions on the future of the Murray Darling Basin.

The Commonwealth is currently involved with the NSW and Victorian Government in preparatory work for the corporatisation of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme.

But the corporatisation of the Scheme could also affect the frequency and size of water releases to the Murray.

Under a corporatised structure, the scheme's main business will be the generation of electricity.

But water release decisions in the corporatised energy industry should not be made solely on the financial returns to be made from power generation.

For Australia it will always be that water is the scarce resource, not power. It will be the decisions on water entitlements that will determine the long-term viability of these vast natural and developed systems.

In particular, we need to retain flexibility in water management to cope with changing circumstances over the next 125 years, the proposed period of the Corporation's water licence.

The corporatisation process has now been designated under the Commonwealth Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act. It's now my responsibility to ensure that all the environmental consequences are fully recognised and understood to ensure Government later next year makes the best decisions in the national interest.

The Murray River is an asset of incalculable benefit to Australia. We have begun the massive task of restoring this great river system. Governments are investing millions of dollars, and local communities and landholders are making significant personal commitments.

But unlike Y2K, few Australians really understand the enormity and urgency of the challenge.

The Murray Darling Association should be congratulated for its ongoing commitment to this great national task and complimented for the timely production of this high quality publication.

I hope that it will inform and encourage more people in South Australia to realise the extraordinary asset we have in this state and work even harder and smarter to secure its future.

Commonwealth of Australia