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No answers on Water

Question
Rachel Siewert 22 Mar 2007

My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, Senator Eric Abetz. I draw the minister's attention to the announcement by South Australia's water minister today that, if the South Australian allocation dropped below 50 per cent next year or they could not maintain weir levels, they would be forced to cut the supply of water to a number of lakes, lagoons and wetlands. Would such an action be compatible with, and supported by, the national water plan? Given the current predictions for reduced inflows into the Murray-Darling, does the minister consider it likely that this will occur?

Answer

Senator ABETZ-In answer to the honourable senator's question, I can indicate that I am not aware of the South Australian minister's proposal. Therefore, I will take that question on notice and see whether my colleague Mr Turnbull has in fact analysed the proposal to which the honourable senator refers and ascertain whether or not he wishes to provide a response.

Supplementary Question

Senator SIEWERT-Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. That would be appreciated and perhaps, in that case, he could also tell us how much of the already allocated $10 billion has been spent to date purchasing water to return flows to threatened wetlands. Also, will the government move to urgently buy water to save these wetlands and prevent them being cut off?

Answer

Senator ABETZ-I will take that question on notice as well. Preservation of the wetlands clearly is important but there are also other important factors. We as a government are seeking with the $10 billion fund to balance all the needs, which of course include the needs of Adelaide right through the basin, and we will come out with a good, balanced proposal. If there is anything further that Minister Turnbull would seek to add to that answer, I will pass it on to the honourable senator.

Motion to take note of answer

Senator SIEWERT - I move:
That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation (Senator Abetz) to a question without notice asked by Senator Siewert today relating to water resources.

I am sure most senators know that tomorrow is World Water Day. The theme for this year is water security. What could be more pertinent for Australia than the theme of water security? I am very disappointed that the minister could not answer my questions, because the wetlands in South Australia are facing calamity. In my question I highlighted the fact that the South Australian water minister has announced that they will be cutting water supplies to a number of lakes, lagoons and wetlands. One of those, for example, is Lake Bonney.

Lake Bonney is already in a great deal of trouble: water levels are dropping and salinity is growing. If this lake is blocked off salinity will continue to increase in the lake and it is highly likely that if water were then returned to the lake it would have an adverse impact going back into the river. The concern is that if the lake is allowed to dry out it will be irretrievable. Therefore it is absolutely essential that the water level not be allowed to drop to a point where there is no return, which means the water should not be cut off and we need to ensure that the lake has access to environmental flows. That comes to the point of my question at the time, which was: what is the government doing about protecting these wetlands; what is the government doing to ensure that these wetlands have an environmental flow? That means buying water, not waiting to buy water until water efficiency mechanisms are put in place.

I spoke last year and earlier this year about the need to ensure that the government are aggressive participants in the water market to ensure that water is available now, not a couple of years down the track once they have exhausted any opportunities in water efficiency. Water needs to be purchased on the market now or these wetlands and others like it will die. The South Australian government, as I understand it, has already cut off the water supply to a number of other wetlands that are not as significant as the ones that they are now proposing to cut off.

Yesterday we also had the report by the World Wildlife Fund which listed the Murray-Darling as one of the top 10 rivers in the world at risk. It is at risk from the threat of invasive species and from issues such as climate change and water allocation, which brings us to the next point that has been raised yet again-that is, the impact of climate change on the Murray River system.

Dr Wendy Craik was in the media today talking about the impact of climate change and the new investment that has been made into research on the impact of climate change. She also quoted one of CSIRO's climate change experts, Dr Bryson Bates, who has suggested that this drought has the fingerprints of climate change all over it. I wonder if the Prime Minister is going to change his thoughts on the association between climate change and drought. As we know, he famously retracted his statements acknowledging the connection between climate change and drought and he thinks the jury is still out on that one. Obviously he is not reading the science. He is not reading what Bryson Bates has to say on the issue: he believes that there is a strong link between climate change and drought.

That puts into even more stark relief the failure of the government to act now to address the issues of these wetlands. I am looking forward to hearing-in my dreams!-an announcement on World Water Day tomorrow, 22 March, that the government has moved to purchase, for an emergency situation, water allocations to enable environmental flows to the wetlands that are at risk and at risk of dying. Lake Bonney has less than 12 months to exist if action is not taken now. If the South Australian government is forced to cut off the water supply to that particular lake, it will die. It is irretrievable. The government can deal with this issue by moving to address and to buy water allocations now.

Tuesday 27th March 2007

Answer received from Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, Senator Eric Abetz:

The South Australian Government's announcement of the potential closure of the wetlands is a result of the record dry conditions being experienced in the Murray-Darling Basin. If 2007 is very dry or a repeat of 2006 then the critical needs of many towns, in particular Adelaide, which rely on the water systems of the southern Murray-Darling Basin could be at risk.

While there are signs the drought will break, it is prudent to plan for the contingency that it will not.

With proper preparations, the critical demands of urban areas and towns, and other households relying on the water supply systems of the southern Murray-Darling Basin, will be able to be met. Senior officials from jurisdictions across the Basin have worked together collaboratively and have made recommendations to governments about improving the flexibility of the system. The recommendations are being implemented as necessary.

A group of eight wetlands in South Australia and NSW have been identified by the Murray-Darling Basin Commission (MDBC) as offering relatively high yields in evaporative savings with manageable costs and environmental impacts under such extreme circumstances. Some of the wetlands announced for potential closure by South Australia on 20 March 2007, including Lake Bonney and the Gurra Gurra Lakes, are among the eight wetlands identified by the Murray-Darling Basin Commission.

The wetlands proposed for disconnection are generally those that have been artificially inundated with permanent water because they are used to store water. Under natural conditions, it is likely that these wetlands would be dry in the current season and drought and disconnection may help mimic a more natural wetting and drying regime, which is likely to be beneficial providing they receive flooding waters in future when required. Wetlands, where disconnection would be problematic in terms of environmental and cultural heritage impacts, will not be affected by this measure. Any action that will or is likely to have an impact on matters of national environmental significance will be subject to the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

Answer to supplementary question received from Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, Senator Eric Abetz:

The funds for the $10 billion National Plan for Water Security are contingent on the referral of powers from the States. On 23 February 2007 all Murray-Darling Basin States other than Victoria agreed to a clear referral of constitutional powers to manage water in the Basin in the national interest. Discussions with Victoria on this issue are continuing. Funding was not budgeted to become available until 1 July 2007 therefore none has been spent to date.

The Government is not intending to urgently buy water for these wetlands identified by the Senator.

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