On 22 November, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was signed into law, after a long drafting process that attracted universal condemnation from farmers, environmentalists, upstream and downstream states alike. At its centrepiece, the plan contains 2750 gigalitres of water per year to be returned to the Murray-Darling River from 2019, roughly a 20 per cent reduction in current water use.
In rural areas, the draft was burned by farmers for being too burdensome. In the cities, it was dismissed by environmentalists as not enough. Upstream states Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria all complained that they were going to be unfairly restricted. Downstream, South Australians warned that if the recovery figure was not high enough, it might result in a court battle.
Here in South Australia, being as we are at the very end of the river, we have tended to cop the worst of things when it comes to the environmental repercussions of overuse. Low water levels around the Murray mouth mean that water cannot flush in and out and floodplains don’t flood, leading to environmental decline and the extinction of many native endangered species. In an April press release, Premier Jay Weatherill rightly reminded us that "South Australia has the most to lose if we don’t get the plan right." He and River Murray Minister Paul Caica went on to label the draft figure of 2750GL as "not even … a good place to start".
They based this position on an expert panel report compiled by the Goyder Institute for Water Research. The report found that, compared to an alternative scenario in which nothing was done at all, there were "important benefits identified under the BP2750 scenario".
Unfortunately, the "something is better than nothing" argument was undercut by the report’s other findings: that the increased water flow produced by the 2750GL plan would not be enough to restore mid and high-level floodplains, and that native vegetation and species would remain endangered and vulnerable to extreme weather. Salinity will also remain a problem in the Lower Murray. With the findings of this report, South Australia’s Labor Government was understandably critical of the draft.
The final basin plan unveiled in November ultimately kept the 2750GL figure and timeframe for implementation as 2019, but it also contained an extra 450GL of water recovery to be achieved by 2024, bringing the eventual total up to 3200GL. Reaction in SA was much more positive to this new proposal. South Australian irrigators are apparently "cautiously optimistic," while the Premier has heralded the new plan as a "great victory for the health of the river."
Sarah Hanson-Young, federal Greens senator from South Australia, is less optimistic, and she intends to place a disallowance motion on the bill while it is tabled in Parliament. The disallowance, which looks unlikely to pass, would send the law back to Minister Tony Burke in order to, as Hanson-Young puts it, "get it right".
So is the 3200GL return of water to the Murray as great a victory as Weatherill and the SA Labor Government suggest? NSW Deputy Premier Andrew Stoner characterised the plan as a "sacrifice" of regional NSW communities in favour of "South Australian Labor votes".
The plan is a political victory for SA and Federal Labor. Whether it is in fact an environmental victory for South Australia, however, is a more complicated question.
In making its suggestions for the basin plan, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority ran several models assessing different levels of water returned to the Murray (2400GL, 2800GL and 3200GL) and the associated environmental outcomes. According to the MDBA, they received a request from the group Voices for the Murray-Darling to also complete a 4000GL run. They refused, arguing that their 3200GL run "achieved only minor additional environmental improvements, compared to the 2,800 GL/y scenario".
The extra 450GL, which only comes into effect after 2024, was the difference between categorical rejection of the draft and gushing praise for the final plan. Let’s be clear here: the plan signed into law contains substantially the same numbers and outcomes as the one condemned as inadequate by the Government in April. The Goyder Institute’s assessment of the MDBA’s methodology also found that the increased 3200GL plan might have even less of an environmental benefit than the MDBA models have predicted.
Experts considered that the MDBA tended to "over-estimate flow delivery and water levels and underestimate salinity … and therefore the [Environmental Water Requirements] will be met less often than suggested by the models." The report also noted that the MDBA had a slightly different way of defining a "successful environmental watering event," in that the MDBA "classed near events as a successful event".
That the MDBA refused to run the 4000GL model based on a large restriction having "unacceptable social and economic impacts" suggests that environmental reform can only come at the expense of industry and business. In fact, industry and business can adapt and survive under new environmental standards, whereas our natural resources do not have the luxury of adaptation to destructive business practices.
3200GL of water returned to the Murray will not be enough to halt the environmental degradation currently occurring in the South Australian region. An extra 450GL is nothing to sneeze at, especially further upstream where it will have more benefit, but the current state of environmental deterioration at the Coorong and Murray mouth is so severe that 450GL might be too little, too late. The Goyder report warned in its conclusion that, depending on fluctuations in the climate before 2019, the ecology of the Murray will only continue to atrophy.