Back to All News

Saving the River Murray

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 10 Oct 2007

The crisis facing the Murray Darling Basin has probably no more appropriate place to talk about it than Adelaide, given that Adelaide is at the end of the system and is obviously suffering the brunt of the crisis facing the Murray.

Last night I attended a lecture by Mike Young who spoke about the situation facing our water supply and if I wasn't worried previously, I'm certainly even more worried after hearing that talk. We certainly are facing a frightening future - he painted a picture that just brought it really into stark relief. If the drought continues and without even factoring in the impact of climate change, if you look at our historical drought records in Australia, the current drought could carry on until 2014 if we are merely repeating our drought patterns of the past. However, if you factor in climate change, we have a very, very worrying scenario. Our irrigation allocations are at an all time low, our storages are at an all time low and the inflow during this season will do nothing to replenish those storages.

So if in fact, we are in a cycle of continuing drought, we face a very worrying scenario. We are failing to manage that significantly - we as a community are still allowing plantings to go on while some farmers are basically going through a triage approach, they're cutting back on their permanent plantings, they're deciding which ones they need to sacrifice. Environment has already been sacrificed. We have already cut off some of our key wetlands from the Murray Darling system. There's the potential that those wetlands will not survive and will not be refilled or replenished. Lake Alexandrina will need 1200 gigalitres to start to refill. Now, it is unlikely that water will be available for a significant period into the future. In other words, we have been trading the future of the Murray Darling system - we've been borrowing from the future.
Unfortunately, there are no plans in place to adequately deal with this crisis. The water bill that came in just recently in June through the Senate wasn't adequate to deal with the crisis. The existing state level catchment management plans that are in place continue until 2014. So the Murray plan doesn't kick in until 2014 and we said at the time that that was too little, too late. Just a couple of months down the track, the facts are bearing this out - our inflows have been run dry. Irrigators in most cases, have just 16% of their current allocations an all time low. So it's obvious that we need dramatic change to the way that we manage the system and we need it now. We can't afford for the Murray Darling plan to kick-in in 2014. We need action before that.

So the Greens are calling on both major parties to commit to dealing with this water crisis and to start addressing it now. The answers are not simple and will require a range of mechanisms. As a start we should be saying, no further plantings in the system until we have actually come through the drought, until we have an effective management system in place, until we have got allocations for the environment in place and we can be assured that we can manage this system on a sustainable basis. I don't think anybody can claim at this current time that we have a system that will manage the Murray Darling system on a sustainable basis.

(Reporter: So nobody has something that will work?)

No. There are no plans in place that will ensure the future of the Murray at this stage. The Government, no State Governments and the Federal Government certainly cannot say that they are managing this system on a sustainable basis or they have a plan for it. We don't even, in fact, have a Murray plan yet. The water bill that came in place to manage the Murray doesn't have to be put in place for two years. The Murray Darling Authority that's been established doesn't have to produce the plan for two years. They will be asked to produce it within two years. In fact, the Act didn't even say that. The Government has undertaken to ask the authority to put the plan in place within two years but because the current catchment management plans, the water sharing plans as they're calling it in New South Wales, stay in place until 2014. The plan effectively doesn't come into place until 2014. There is yet no cap set, no new environmental flow targets set, so we're stuck with the 500 gigalitres.

When I asked the Government about why there aren't targets, they said when we're buying back leases, when we're doing all these water efficiency measures, there'll be more water available for the river, we don't need to set an environmental target, there'll be more water available. Well, that's not satisfactory. If you're trying to sustainably manage a river system, the Government should in fact be setting targets.

Now scientists, when they were asked what level of water is needed for a good chance of recovery for the Murray Darling system said 3,500 gigalitres were needed. The Governments collectively, went for the lowest common denominator of 500 gigalitres, of which none of that has been returned as yet and what they've managed to get back, although it hasn't been returned, is around 300 gigalitres. So we are far, far behind the eight ball and in the meantime, the system continues to get worse - managers keep thinking it's going to rain.

Well, unfortunately, the historical data shows that in fact it may not rain next year and even if it does, the long term scenario's not good when you're factoring in climate change. We're managing it as if it's going to get better - we need to actually get serious about the fact that we are in a changing environment. The Murray Darling status report that came out just last week, even Wendy Craic was saying that climate change is kicking in. While some in Government are still in denial … well, the head of the Murray Darling Basin Commission is saying the evidence is there now.

Back to All News