Murray-Darling report sparks fierce debate

By Aaron Smith 22 October 2010
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The release of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan has sparked a fierce debate over how to manage the nation’s food bowl.

AUSTRALIA’S LARGEST RIVER SYSTEM, in the Murray-Darling Basin, represents the carotid artery of the nation and its survival has become a contentious issue. The release of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan on 8 October has sparked fierce a debate between the rural community and the Federal Government, about how the region should be managed.

The Federal Government’s Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) has recommended water allocations to farmers be cut by 27 to 45 per cent in some areas in an effort to return 3,000 to 4,000 gigalitres back to the region. MDBA spokeswoman Erin Russell says this “represents the minimum requirements of the basin and has been calculated from various complex scenarios.”

ANU ecologist Dr. Jamie Pittock says that at the lower end, 3,000 to 4,000 gigalitres is “a trade off between keeping red gums of the Chowilla floodplains alive or keeping the mouth of the Murray open. An upper end of that range of around 7,600 gigalitres is more realistic.”

The development of the Murray-Darling Basin plan by the MDBA has been underway for the past 18 months. It is hoped to be finalised in 2011 and provide the nation with a blueprint on how to ensure one of our most important natural assets survives. With the region being previously managed by state governments, this plan represents “a new way of managing the basin as a whole,” says MDBA spokeswoman Erin.

Heart of Australia

Spanning the interior of southeast Australia, the Murray-Darling Basin drains a seventh of the nation’s landmass across Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria. Not only the hydrological heart of Australia, the basin is also our most significant food producing region – and this is thirsty work.

It is also home to one World Heritage site, 30,000 wetlands and 95 threatened fauna species, including half of the entire basin’s native fish species. As one of the world’s largest and driest water catchment areas, it has different ecosystems that range from alpine to the western lowlands.

Prolonged droughts, over-allocation of water rights, climate variability as well as climate change have all played havoc with the health of the basin. In 2006 its inflow bottomed out to a 100-year record low.

Recent drenching rains have opened the mouth of the Murray and quenched part of the basin for the first time in a decade, but the flooding has also had some downsides, with stagnant waters spitting out a salty backwash that’s been stifling the river’s ecosystem. Despite this reprieve, the future health of the Murray-Darling Basin, though, is still in jeopardy.

Job losses regardless

With some economists warning that a cut of 4,000 gigalitres from agricultural water allocations could result in thousands of jobs being lost in the region, it’s not surprising that the bush is beginning to scream blue murder.

However, Professor Mike Young, an environmental scientist from Adelaide University says, “We clearly have over-developed the river system.” He adds that any jobs losses in the region are “assuming you can have your cake and eat it too.” “The message coming loud and clear is it’s not sustainable – and if something isn’t done – those jobs will be lost anyway,” he says.

This week the University of Queensland’s Risk and Sustainable Management Group (RSMG) is hosting a forum bringing together prominent contributors from various academic, policy and practice disciplines.

University of Queensland economist and RSMG director, Professor John Quiggin says that “our task is to draw on differing viewpoints to distil the key influences that shaped the Murray-Darling Basin experience as a living experiment in social policy.”

Mike Young will be attending the RSMG forum. “The first thing a nation needs is its river to flow to the sea. If nothing is done Australia’s reputation as a clean and green food producer and leading water manager are both at risk,” he says.

He is however upbeat about MDBA plan: “This is an exciting world first where a government is committing to making the hard decisions needed to try and fix the basin.”

Not an easy task, the University of Queensland’s RSMG forum this week will be one of many attempts to balance the environment and economy of the Murray-Darling Basin, in order to revive the iconic heart of the nation.