Dear Ministerial Council,
Through the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and earlier reforms, 1 in 3 litres of irrigation water has come out of food and fibre production, permanently back to the environment. As a result, total diversions in the Basin are now just 28% of inflows, well within international sustainability standards.
The entire purpose of the Basin Plan was to get diversions to sustainable limits – and we’ve achieved that. In fact, diversions in NSW valleys are on average 17% below the SDL.
We’ve come a long way, and a lot has changed.
Please remember when you meet this week: SDLs, the Basin Plan centrepiece, are in place, with 98% of surface water targets and 92% of groundwater targets met. The remaining challenges cannot overshadow this progress.
Even in ‘under-recovered’ valleys, SDLs are still being met. For example, the NSW Murray, where the Government wants another 10 GL, is already 19% below its SDL. Similarly, the NSW Border Rivers, where another 5.1GL is sought, is 21% below its SDL.
Water recovery was meant to be about reaching SDLs, and that has been achieved.
More water can be freed up for the environment without more buybacks from farmers to meet targets modelled more than a decade ago. We have learnt so much from implementation since. We urge you to shift direction based on the lessons learnt by doing.
As the floods have writ large, environment gains under the Plan are being blunted by invasive species like carp (80-90% of the biomass in some areas); infrastructure like weirs blocking fish passage (disrupting migration and breeding); pumps killing native fish (which can fixed through pump screening); habitat loss (which can be fixed through re-snagging programs to provide habitats); cold water pollution; and much more.
You can’t “just add water” to fix these key degradation drivers. We need an integrated catchment management approach, rather than just a water management approach alone. Continuing to just add water is only tinkering at the edges until serious steps are taken to address the degradation drivers. This is now the priority.
Where is the same sense of urgency and resources for these measures, as we have seen in the past for buybacks? Buybacks are neither quick, nor cheap, nor socio-economically neutral. ABARES and others have documented the cost to production of buybacks.
Further, less than 100 GL in entitlements is now commercially traded each year in the southern Basin. Even if the Government captured the market, engaging in the anti-competitive behaviour that ACCC reforms accepted by the Government are intended to prevent, it would take many, many years to meet shortfalls in the various modelled targets, including the SDLAM 450 GL and 605 GL.
Scientists have long been calling instead for resources to address the degradation drivers, but politicians have been distracted by the numbers game – putting political deals struck a decade ago ahead of our environment, and Basin communities. In fact, many scientists are now saying these measures are more important than further water recovery.
The way forward involves genuinely working with Basin communities, and flexibility to do things better, learning from the implementation wins and challenges.
Communities have put forward great ideas, including more options to partner with Irrigation Infrastructure Operators and private landholders to deliver water to wetlands when it otherwise wouldn’t make it. Afterall, given 93% of the Basin’s wetlands are on private property, these sorts of pathways must be a priority.
So, what if this requires more time? With SDLs in place, and being adhered to, you’ve got time to do this right. So, what if this means changing course? If there’s better ways to serve our environment and communities, we need you to have the courage to step up.
Times are changing, and we need you to change with it.
Let’s move Beyond Buybacks.
Jim Cush, Chair
Claire Miller, CEO.
 Economic effects of water recovery in the Murray–Darling Basin – DAFF (agriculture.gov.au); Future scenarios for the southern Murray-Darling Basin: Report to the Independent Assessment of Social and Economic Conditions in the Basin – DAFF (agriculture.gov.au)