RIVER YARNS: THE MURRAY-DARLING MYTHS: WEEK THREE
Talking about River Yarns
With assistance from the Walkley Foundation, McPherson Media Group has commissioned Jane Ryan, a consultant with long experience and deep knowledge of water and resource management in the Murray-Darling Basin, to unravel the complex issues surrounding the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
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Jane’s brief is to do so without the bias and hyperbole that has accompanied most commentary on the plan since its inception 14 years ago.
At a time when the Federal Government seeks to amend the plan to give effect to election promises to South Australia, Jane’s analysis will canvas what the plan has achieved already in the long history of resource management in the basin.
She explores the shortcomings of a political compromise on ‘a number’ for water recovery, when what is really required is a nuanced approach to securing the original ambitions for the plan.
In this third article in the series, Jane discusses the timeline for the basin plan and how it has been followed – and ignored – since 2012.
THE BASIN PLAN TIMELINE
In this next article in our Murray-Darling Basin series, we look at the timeline that was agreed for carrying out the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
The agreed timetable is important for the casual observer to make sense of how much time it takes to do things properly and what was expected to have been done by now. How to be realistic in our expectations and hold catchment managers and governments to account.
Like our last piece, we’ll be taking a water manager’s point of view, rather than that of the politicians and advocates from different persuasions. We’ll be looking at what those on the ground trying to deliver government policy were attempting to do – with the added complexity of state and Commonwealth governments setting the program parameters, as well as putting the plan into effect on the ground.
When we think about timelines, it is sensible to start by acknowledging the relationship the First Nations have had with the basin for more than 100,000 years.
River Country is home to large diverse communities and was an essential part of all the significant events of life – births, deaths, marriages and everything in between. River Country is linked to the very being of First Nations people, and the impact of colonisation continues to be immense on the people and their Country.
The basin plan timeline is critical for us to weigh up how this program of work has been planned, monitored and adjusted along the way.
The timing of rolling out any major program can be fraught, where political announcements ramp up public expectations of unrealistic outcomes. At the least, it can produce cynicism about such announcements – at worst, tragic outcomes can result in injury and great harm to individuals and communities.
Nobody wants to replicate flawed major government programs with accelerated timelines, like the pink batts insulation installation program developed under pressure over a weekend in 2009 or the robodebt debt retrieval program that pushed on despite warnings and evidence of perverse outcomes.
Original discussions about timing
Did you know the timing was more of a sticking point than funding in the original basin plan negotiations in 2012?
In our previous piece on the basics of the basin plan, we talked about some of the background to the formal agreement in 2012.
Time, even more than funding, was the major sticking point in the lead up to all basin states signing the agreement. This is predictable, considering the Federal Government had not been involved before in water management.
The basin plan had several programs of work that interacted with each other, so it was complicated to set realistic yet ambitious timelines to drive change.
Recovering new water to be handed to the environment is now seen as the most important part of the basin plan. At the start of the plan, there was a focus on making sure what we think is in the river is actually in the river. In water management, we say: you can’t manage it if you don’t know what is there.
Documenting the rules for extracting water and having limits to leave water in the system is critical.
One of the deadlines that have not been met and are not proposed to be changed in the current proposed legislative changes by the Federal Government is the 2019 deadline for basin states to develop and finalise their water-sharing plans.
The original timing put forward by the Commonwealth and some states for developing and finalising these plans was 2013. At the time, Victoria argued that this detailed accounting for surface water and groundwater in our share of the southern basin takes time to discuss and share with communities, and so this deadline ended up being 2019.
As recently reported by the Inspector-General of the Murray-Darling Basin, NSW is the state that still does not have its plans signed off, some five years later. The Inspector-General also documented the connection to these water-sharing plans not being in place and of the years of water-take rules not being complied.
To date, there have been no repercussions, despite the resulting impact of reduced water available for the environment. It is curious to me that this is not a bigger environmental scandal being raised in the media and by advocacy groups.
Did you know that most of the water buybacks happened before agreement to the basin plan?
When the basin plan was agreed to in 2012, most of the water recovery through buybacks was over.
The ‘Swiss cheese’ impact of unfettered buybacks on high-reliability water shares during the millennium drought is well documented and backed by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s own analysis showing reductions in production and agricultural jobs in many areas.
To reduce impacts such as stranded assets in irrigation districts, investment in water recovery switched to reducing the footprint of the system, with hundreds of gigalitres of water recovered for the environment from these projects.
There was an understanding then that large volumes of water recovery could be found in system savings, decommissioning of infrastructure and strategic buybacks in water systems that didn’t have a large impact on the market, such as smaller tributaries or unregulated licences.
This position recognised that the willing seller was not the full story, that impacts on water price and the water market could be avoided and that there was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to decommission infrastructure to reduce water used in system water delivery.
What can we expect next?
The long stretches of time and complex actions required to get any improvement in the health of the basin means it’s hard to keep abreast of achievements and progress in the basin plan.
Despite the MDBA’s evaluation to the contrary, the Commonwealth minister has said several times that there has been no basin plan work since 2012. The evaluation shows large volumes of water recovered and delivered to achieve environmental outcomes, several finalised projects that change the river system operations and compliance improvements across the basin.
Some actions are not likely to be met, like some of the more complex operational water delivery projects to be completed by June 2024. There are also actions like the extra water to be recovered in a way that minimises impacts on communities, which are to be reviewed in 2026 as part of the plan.
And there are actions that have not been achieved: the basin states’ water resource plans were to be finalised in 2019 and have not been in NSW. But these don’t seem to feature quite as loudly in current worries about delays in retrieving enough water to successfully carry out the basin plan.
Did you know investment in completing key projects under the basin plan has only been available for less than five years?
With the Commonwealth stepping into managing the Murray-Darling Basin at the peak of the millennium drought emergency, the costs, responsibilities and liabilities had to shift from the states to the Federal Government.
The cost of realising the basin plan was identified as $13 billion overall. However, some elements were negotiated separately.
In fact the process for developing and finding projects to deliver recovered environmental water was only finalised in 2018, and work to start the planning and regulatory process began four years ago in 2019. In 2018, the Productivity Commission identified that the June 2024 timeline agreed to in 2012 was unrealistic and needed to be changed in legislation at that point.
The independent commission also saw value in identifying other beneficial projects that could be added to meet the agreed offsets component of the agreed plan. These projects are designed to deliver the water recovered as the second step of the Living Murray.
It is heartening to see many of the recommendations from the Productivity Commission’s report finally being adopted by the current Federal Government.
Did you know that statutory processes such as the Environmental Effects Statements have taken up the most time in rolling out the basin plan?
Operational changes to river rules and works that allow delivery of water for environmental benefit are a significant part of the basin plan.
Since the Living Murray program in 2002 reconnected some of Victoria’s most important wetland environments to the Murray River, and where 500 Gl was recovered and works built at icon sites, Victorian catchment managers have been able to rehabilitate high value parts of the floodplain. That is, we identify as many hectares as we can of remnant parts of the floodplain that are in the parks system with links to river corridors and important plants and animals, some of which are found nowhere else in Australia.
These areas have a proven ability to deliver water without flooding towns and communities and have been watered periodically by catchment managers using active delivery, currently through temporary works and pumps.
Most of the temporary works have been in national and state parks so in converting these works to more permanent structures, the Victorian Planning Ministry declared that the projects must be assessed through the Environmental Effects Act.
This immense statutory process has taken more than 18 months to establish all the committees of assessors and do the necessary cultural and environmental work to go through the planning panel process.
This aims to make sure any basin plan project considers all aspects of being on valuable landscapes to make sure these landscapes depending on water can survive and thrive.
Realistically meeting deadlines
We know the basin plan is not a set-and-forget proposition and that catchment managers need to continue to consistently act in between political announcements.
It’s hard to keep track of what has already been completed, what needs extended timing to be done properly, and what must speed up to improve the environmental condition of the basin.
In Victoria, despite the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and unprecedented floods experienced by many Goulburn and Murray catchment communities, the floodplain restoration projects are likely to be finished by 2026.
Most of the original water recovered for the environment is online and available for use, and many of the simple changes to river operations have been made. Those projects that rely on sorting through liability issues as they interact with private properties have historically taken time.
The environmental significance of the Murray-Darling Basin landscape means that successfully putting the basin plan into effect is important for all Australians – those in the basin as well as out.
Catchment managers across the basin need to be kept accountable on dates for public commitments and legal obligations, particularly where some deadlines continue to be ignored.
After all, the clear path to improving the health of the basin is in cutting through the rhetoric and politics and building clarity and confidence in what’s happening on the ground to meet deadlines or doing more to see us meet those deadlines.
We’re all in this together and need to be part of the solution in a consistent approach to all aspects of the basin plan.
NEXT WEEK: The diverse landscapes of the Murray-Darling Basin and the successes of local communities.
About the author
Jane Ryan — a former school captain at Notre Dame College in Shepparton — was deputy chief of staff to former Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville, and has worked in senior roles in water resources and catchment management, including Director of Rural Water Policy and Programs, Strategic Engagement Manager for River Health and Consultation Manager for the Northern Region Sustainable Water Strategy.
During the millennium drought, Jane was involved in the development of the key water policies that remain the cornerstone of water management in northern Victoria, including environmental water recovery targets, carryover arrangements and changes to allocation water policy for the Goulburn and Murray systems in response to climate change.