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Better basin management needed to meet environmental targets

Climate change is placing increased pressure on water in the Murray-Darling Basin, with river and wetland systems often losing out. Researchers are calling for more to be done to ensure environmental flow targets are better informed and managed, and effectively implemented.

International Day of Action for Rivers (14 March) is a day dedicated to speaking up for the world’s rivers and pushing action on achieving waterway health, as well as the health of the ecosystems and communities relying on them.

To celebrate this important day, Water Source spoke with ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society’s Professor Jamie Pittock about recent research outlining the growing gap between the amount of water required to maintain healthy river systems and wetlands and what is actually allocated for environmental flows.

Pittock said there are a number of reasons why more effective and better management of the Murray-Darling Basin is critical, particularly as the climate continues to change.

“The basin is really significant for Australia in terms of being one-seventh of the continent's land mass. It is terribly significant for 40 Indigenous nations, for conservation and biodiversity, and for supporting an important irrigation industry,” he said.

“It’s also a basin that provides drinking water to three million Australians.

“As a society, we’ve been spending $13 billion trying to reform water management in the basin. This is an enormous sum of money in anybody's books. It would be appalling if we wasted that in a failed attempt, so we do need to try and get the best out of the reforms that have been attempted.”

Pittock said getting sustainable water management in the basin right also has a broader importance for leading best-practice – both in Australia and on a global level – which starts with ensuring that water reforms are effective.

“Australia is a wealthy country and the basin has had a lot of resources dedicated to it. If we can’t get water management right in the basin, then how are we going to get water management on a sustainable footing anywhere else in Australia, or even globally?” he said.

“When the current round of water reforms was launched in 2007, the former prime minister talked about the need for ‘once and for all reforms’ to fix management. But water management is never static; it is constantly changing with the climate, altered water uses and population.

“The former prime minister’s aspiration was to set in place governance institutions that were adaptive and resilient, but sadly that hasn’t been realised. What we are seeing is that those reforms are not delivering, particularly on environmental targets.

Minding the gap

Referring to Norman Lindsay’s iconic Australian tale The Magic Pudding, Pittock said the current Murray-Darling Basin Plan allows for more water than is available, both now and in light of increasing declines in rainfall due to climate change.

“The current basin plan is a bit of a Magic Pudding plan. It seems that wherever you take a slice out of this pie, it is expected to magically regrow. It’s a Magic Pudding plan because it contends that everybody can have everything, and that our rivers will still stay healthy,” he said.

“The plan suggests that we can sustain all of the current irrigation industries in the basin and also sustain all of the freshwater ecosystems with the same volume of water. And that is simply not true.

“Recorded inflows into the river system over the first two decades of the 21st century were 37% below the average. And yet we have a basin plan designed for 100% historical water availability. That does not compute. Things are going to have to change.”

There are three major challenges to sustainable water management in the basin, Pittock said, including changes in water demand for human purposes, changes in climate, and the urgent need for water justice for Indigenous peoples.

“The water demands of human communities are changing. In particular, irrigated agriculture is changing. We are seeing the emergence of new and thirstier industries and land uses,” he said.

“We also have the issue of climate change to deal with. The climate in south-eastern Australia is changing and, sadly, this means diminishing river inflows. It also means that the landowners in the catchment are changing their land use. And many of those changes are consuming more water and reducing inflows into the rivers even further.

“But we also need to urgently address the dispossession of Indigenous nations of their water. The nearly 40 Indigenous nations within the basin control only 0.2% of the issued water entitlements. We are going to have to do a whole lot more to see some degree of water justice for those nations.

“At the moment, there is a tremendous gap between the expressed aspiration of the government to sustain both the freshwater environment and industries in the basin, versus how water is actually being allocated.”

Policy options

There are a number of key changes that can be made to tackle these challenges directly, Pittock said, including improving modelling, regulating inflow interception activities, as well as more effective use of the environmental water that is available.

“Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists’ research has shown that over the first seven years of basin plan implementation, there was 22% less water in the river flowing into South Australia than the current source modelling predicted. That’s a very significant gap. And we need to know why that is,” he said.

“The current model that governments are using to run water in the basin is a collection of separate state models bolted together at the border. We need to be refining these models by checking gauged river flow data against model projections – year in, year out – and identifying differences.”

Pittock said there is also the need to better regulate inflow interception activities – the land uses that change or reduce the amount of water that is coming into the rivers.

“These activities include things like the water storage structures on farms and expansions of tree planting. Climate change is making this worse because it is driving changes in land use and we need to put in place systems to regulate that effectively,” he said.

There are also opportunities to introduce more effective environmental watering strategies, as there will now always be less water available to sustain the historical extent of floodplain and wetland ecosystems.

“We are going to lose some wetlands under climate change. We can sustain more of them if the environmental water the government has bought, and often stores in dams, is able to be let out in pulses, fill up the river channel and spill out onto the floodplains,” Pittock said.

“This practice is currently not allowed by state governments, as it requires some inundation of low-lying, private land. But better use of environmental water is absolutely critical.

“There are hundreds of thousands of hectares of floodplain wetlands that will dry out and die unless these constraints are relaxed to enable this maximum use of environmental flows. Our research shows that only 2% of the extent of floodplain wetlands in the basin are effectively watered with environmental flows each year. 

“Environmental water is dribbled down the river systems, which is great for reducing salinity and keeping some fish happy, but that does not conserve the full range of biodiversity.”

Pittock said getting clear on adaptation pathways and environmental triage is also needed, so that we can be sure the plan is informed by community values.

“We need to be having value-by-value community discussions to determine the parts of the water-nature-people system we value most, how much water it's going to take to sustain them and, if water inflows keep declining, what are the things we allow to dry out,” he said.

“And if there are people negatively affected by that, then we must be clear on how we compensate them or enable them to adjust to a new drier future.

“It is appalling that there are so many towns in the basin that have domestic water supplies that are unreliable or are failing World Health Organization guidelines. Many of these communities are Indigenous. We have the technology to make sure that those towns do have decent drinking water and there is no excuse for not providing that.”

Pittock said some innovative solutions can be applied to help bolster the health of rivers and waterways while also addressing injustices.

“One would be a scheme to assist Indigenous nations’ buy-in to the irrigation industry. Another would be to transfer ownership of much of the environmental water management to Indigenous nations,” he said.

“There is a pilot program for Indigenous river rangers in NSW, which is a really great way of getting boots in tinnies, out on the rivers, doing the river restoration work that we need. This could really be a turning point in terms of restoration of the health of many of these rivers.”

Pittock said governments have shown that, when they do collaborate, they can achieve some really great outcomes, but more accountable water governance will be crucial if the basin’s rivers and wetlands are to be effectively managed moving forward.

“A lot of the reporting done has been very much about inputs and procedures, including how many plans have been ticked off or not. But we are not spending $13 billion to tick boxes,” he said.

“We are spending this money to get threatened species populations recovered, good water quality in our rivers, healthy domestic water supplies for towns, and sound irrigation industries. We must move away from box-ticking exercises and start reporting on our progress towards the things that we value most.”