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Water Policy Initiatives - interim committee report into water

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 7 Sep 2006

I present an interim report on the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee's inquiry into water policy initiatives, together with a document presented to the committee. I seek leave to move a motion in relation to the report.
(Leave granted.)

I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

Once again, because the references committee is about to come to an end, the committee felt it was important that we report progress in our inquiry. We have been extremely busy with both the water and the oil inquiry. I would like to talk about where we have got to in our ongoing inquiry and some of the issues that have been raised to date. The committee has received 59 submissions to date and has held three hearings: in Canberra; in Toowoomba, four days after the well-known vote; and in Canberra again just a few weeks ago, taking evidence via teleconference from Perth.

During the period of the inquiry, the level of public concern about the security of our water resources has increased and is becoming increasingly apparent. The issue is featuring in the media on virtually a daily basis and we are seeing increasing conflict over water issues.

This interim report focuses on the major issues arising from the hearings and the submissions. It is very clear that there is strong community concern over the issues of reduced rainfall, over-allocation, and water security. Because the development of the National Water Initiative and the grants going out are at an early stage, the evidence received on the effectiveness of these policy initiatives under the initiative has been limited. But we see this issue as being an important focus in the future for this inquiry.

Rural versus urban usage has emerged as a major issue of concern, suggesting that unless these issues are dealt with effectively they will lead to increased bad feelings between growers and city folk.

Managing our water resources is a difficult balancing act. We are a growing nation living on a dry continent with extremely variable weather patterns. Recent years have brought water supply security problems to a number of our cities, agricultural industries and major rural centres. The challenge for policy makers is how to best balance competing demands for a limited and precious resource in a manner that ensures the sustainability of the resource; equity among competing users; predictability and security of supply for our industries, towns and cities; and still guarantees the survival of our environment.

The issue is made more difficult by the complexity and uncertainty of the science of assessing the resource and predicting the impacts of drought and increased climate variability. Ultimately, we need to be able to make good decisions, ones that can guide us safely into an uncertain future, on the basis of incomplete information. In this context, we need to give serious consideration to the flexibility of our water management systems to adapt to variations, to unpredictability, and to reductions in available water, at a time when demands on that resource are continuing to grow. Taken together with the other very important issue that the committee has been looking into, that of Australia's oil supplies, we have a combination of issues-in effect, a double whammy-that could potentially have massive implications for the future of our agricultural industries, the viability of our regional towns, the sustainability of growing cities, and the nature of our economy.

This interim report focused particularly on the issues of climate change; water re-use and recycling; over-allocation, with which comes water titles and systems and trading; and the managing of our rivers' health and the need to protect our northern rivers. A very big issue that emerged very quickly was climate change, in terms of reduced rainfall, extended drought periods, increased climate variability and greater evapotranspiration. Many see this as the elephant in the room of water policy that is not being acknowledged.

While the exact scope of climate change may be uncertain and open to dispute, it is clear that any significant change in rainfall and temperature patterns could leave a major hole in our water accounting processes. This has major implications for our resource management policy, legislation and practice. We need to give serious consideration to the implications that this could have for our agricultural industries, our economy, the sustainability and limits to growth of our cities and the preservation of our environmental assets.

We need to develop adaptive management options that allow us to respond to likely rainfall, run-off and evapotranspiration scenarios in a timely and effective manner.

While there is inherently some uncertainty involved in predicting the likely impacts of these changes, there is very little point in disputing the exact numbers when there is a pressing need to make management decisions to avoid catastrophic outcomes.

When it comes to the impacts of climate variability and climate change on water resources in WA, the change in Perth's dams is so starkly evident that no-one is arguing the impacts. All stakeholders acknowledge that the situation is serious.

We received evidence from Dr Jim Gill, the CEO of the Water Corporation of Western Australia. He told the committee:

... there has been a phenomenal shift of climate and weather in the south of WA and it does appear to be unique worldwide ... there seems to be no other place that is drying quite as fast as the south of Western Australia ... We have had to cope with that over the last 10 years. It has been a trend, we now know with the best of hindsight, for about 30 years ... for the last eight or nine years the rainfall has been down by about 21 per cent on what it was up until 1974, and the run-off has been down by 64 per cent. Actually now it is becoming clear that for the last four or five years, since 2001, we seem to be down still further.

The concern that a relatively small decrease in rainfall can result in a much larger reduction in stream run-off was reiterated by Professor Michael Young, who told the committee:

... a rule of thumb ... if you have a decline in rainfall, normally the decline in water available for use is roughly twice the reduction in rainfall ... A 15 per cent reduction in rainfall, which is what a lot of people are talking about, means a 30 per cent reduction in yield.

The CSIRO, in its latest analysis of the risks to the shared water resources of the Murray-Darling Basin, in 2006, suggested that the implications of climate change for the basin are likely to be significant. They documented reductions in rainfall.

The dam levels in all our capital cities and major rural centres have been dropping. It presents a challenging picture. Brisbane has 28 per cent capacity in the dams, Perth is down to less than 30 per cent capacity, Sydney has 41 per cent and it is dwindling, Canberra has 49 per cent, Melbourne has 47 per cent and Adelaide has 54 per cent. The committee is concerned that the potential impacts of climate change may not have been significantly factored into water entitlements and management plans.

Essentially, it could affect them significantly.

The issue of water recycling was a hot topic, particularly when we were in Toowoomba. Australia has a poor record in the use of recycled water in comparison to international standards. Given the sustainability limits on Australia's supplies, together with increasing demand as our nation grows, it is inevitable that we will have to embrace water recycling on a much larger scale. We should stick to the principle of using the highest quality water for the highest value use and be creative about how we use substitution of recycled water, at a standard that is fit for purpose. Public education on these issues is also significant. That was the point made by the Mayor of Toowoomba when we heard evidence there. She felt that there needed to be a much stronger public education campaign. She said that, in her opinion, three to four years were needed to educate the public about the scientific aspects of the decisions. It is ironic that the legitimate public concerns about the safety of their water ultimately led to people in Toowoomba rejecting a water source that is cleaner than their current supply.

Then we came to the issue of water allocation. We had a lot of submissions about water allocation in some systems in Australia. The impacts of reduced rainfall on the viability of growers are going to make it an even more important issue. We face four major challenges in Australia when we deal with water allocation: how to develop a uniform system to water entitlements and trade across state and territory borders; how we can reform already overallocated systems in a manner that is just and equitable; how we can best manage allocation of water to the environment; and how we can account for the impacts of climate variability, reduced rainfall and increased evapotranspiration on water availability within these systems.

Over a third of submissions dealt with the vexed issue of those living downstream who were suffering the consequences of overallocation in the water licensing systems. These are significant issues that the committee will continue to look at and will hopefully come up with some recommendations.

We looked at river protection. Many of the river systems in southern Australia, as many people know, are already degraded and suffer from excessive demands of both water extraction and, of course, drought. We also heard evidence that Australia's northern rivers are still in very good condition, but, of course, eyes are turning north, and we heard some evidence about that. Various submissions to the committee called on governments to grant special protection to those rivers that are still in relatively pristine condition. In conclusion, these issues are extremely complex and difficult to deal with.

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