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“We need to pause the Basin Plan”: Community debates the future of the Murray-Darling Basin

After seven years and $8 billion spent as part of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, new solutions must be found to fix the dying river system.

This was one of the messages that came out of a public forum on the future of the Murray-Darling Basin held by the University of New South Wales’ (UNSW) Global Water Institute recently.

Speakers included irrigators, farmers, scientists and politicians who all expressed concern over the state of the river system and the implications for regional communities.

Senior Water Researcher at The Australia Institute and former director of environmental water at the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, Maryanne Slattery described the Basin Plan as a “failure”.

She said the framework sounded good in theory but there had been problems with implementation.

“Use the best available science to set sustainable diversion limits, make irrigators more efficient .... it sounds fantastic,” Slattery said.

“But we’re seeing millions of dead fish, towns running out of water and regional communities in really dire straits.

“If we can’t have an honest conversation, we’ll never be in a space to fix it.”

Slattery said it was “nonsense” to think policy makers would get such momentous reform right on the first go, and that the Plan needs to be reassessed.  

“It’s fair to say that, despite the $8 billion already spent as part of this $13 billion plan, we’re worse off than when we started,” she said.

“We need to pause the Plan. The government has had 25 years, they’ve put a lot of money into it, and it’s been a failure.

“... We need to start thinking about community-led solutions to get the outcomes we want, not just for the environment but for our regional communities as well.”

Lower Darling citrus irrigator Alan Whyte told attendees it was important to move away from the “blame game”.

“There is no one cause because there is no one problem,” he said.

“The problem is 40 or 50 years of neglect by everyone … Everyone is part of the problem, and everyone can be part of the solution.

“Realistically, we have to reduce the demand on water … if we’re going to fix the issues with the river. Everyone along the river is part of that.”

Whyte said triggers, whether volume or supply based, could help protect small flows in dry years.

Kate McBride, a fifth-generation farmer from Tolarno Station in western New South Wales, described the pain of seeing the Darling River run dry for eight months in 2015, and said current low flows mean the river will dry up again within about five months.

“Our governments have left us to die,” she said.

“It’s heartbreaking but there are steps we can take.”

McBride said embargoes must be put in place immediately so water can reach Lower Darling communities. She also described buybacks as “a sure fire way” to get water back into the system.

“Communities need to be put before irrigation. It doesn’t matter what crop it is – our lives rely on this,” she said.

“We need embargoes and we need to save the Darling … There are no jobs on a dead river and communities are dying.”

Director of UNSW’s Centre for Ecosystem Science Professor Richard Kingsford also spoke about buying back water from irrigators, describing it as “the most efficient and least expensive” way to get water back into the system.

He said the current cap on buybacks, which is set at 1500 GL, should be repealed.

“There needs to be fundamental changes to the river system and way its managed,” Kingsford said.

“It is essentially dying ecologically; it is in real trouble.”

Kingsford also said we don’t know how much water is being taken out of the system through floodplain harvesting and that the Menindee Lakes Water Saving Project, which the NSW Government described as “an opportunity to improve the efficiency of the Menindee storages and achieve environmental outcomes for the southern Murray-Darling Basin”, will dry up the system.

“The Menindee Lakes [are] being managed under an agreement struck 50 years ago,” Kingsford said.

“We think there should be a restoration project [that] reinstates the natural flooding and drying patterns.”

Artist, educator and Barkandji elder William ‘Badger’ Bates was scheduled to speak as part of the forum but was unable to attend.

In his absence, audience member Bruce Shillingsworth, from Brewarrina in northwest NSW, took the opportunity to speak about the importance of First Nations peoples’ connections to land and water.

“Aboriginal people have a lot of knowledge and understand the environment,” he said.

“The river is our blood, and without blood, we will die.”

Shillingsworth said the current situation was a man-made disaster that must be fixed.

“My old people said to me, ‘One day we’re going to be squabbling over water: who owns it, who controls it, who takes it all and who’s not getting any of it’.

“You can blame the drought, irrigators, big corporations, but we are here now to fix it … We need to fix the Murray-Darling Basin. It’s not a political football. It’s lives we’re talking about.”

You can watch a recording of the forum here and find all our Murray-Darling Basin coverage here.

Image: Jeremy Buckingham/Flickr. CC BY 2.0