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Monday, 26 May 1997
Page: 4012


Mr ANDREW(6.26 p.m.) —In 1838 Major Thomas Mitchell, the Surveyor-General of New South Wales, said:

The Murray, fed by the lofty mountains on the east, carries to the sea, a body of fresh water sufficient to irrigate the whole country, and this is in general so level . . . that the abundant water of the river might probably be turned into canals, for the purpose either of supplying natural deficiencies of water at particular places or of affording the means of transport across the wide plains.

He saw in the River Murray a resource that gave great opportunity for future development of the nation. By the 1880s the Chaffey brothers had at least partially taken up his challenge and turned the Mildura area into an irrigation area modelled on California.

By 1997 the popular view across Australia is that the River Murray is dying. One hundred and ten years after Major Thomas Mitchell pronounced those words, in the 1950s, one-third of the River Murray flow was diverted into irrigation activities. After 160 years, in 1997, without intervention, we would be diverting more than the river's flow. It has only been the recent decision by the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, encouraged by the federal government and the state governments, to engage capping that has guaranteed that the river's entire flow will not be diverted.

I rise in this grievance debate because I want to put the case for the River Murray. I, frankly, do not believe this is a dying resource. I believe this is a resource that is currently being very well managed, and I must say that the evolution to better management occurred just as successfully under the former government as it has under my own. The decision by the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) to establish a fund to be known as the Natural Heritage Trust fund to be used for environmental rehabilitation across the nation is great news for the Murray, because it gives the resources that are necessary to further take up the work initiated by the former government as part of the Murray-Darling Basin upgrade.

This is a major resource. Eighty per cent of the nation's irrigated properties are in the Murray-Darling Basin. The total agricultural product produced in that basin returns something like $10 billion to the nation. The irrigated portion of that product returns about $6 billion. In its natural course, the River Murray runs in drought about five in every 100 years. But, as a result of the diversion that has been particularly pronounced over the last 40 years, the River Murray now effectively has what I will call a diversion induced drought in six out of every 10 years.

This has meant a dramatic change in the way in which the river operates and in its management. This was once a major artery flowing to the sea. But, in order to have it available for irrigation, for recreation and for major cities, particularly in South Australia, locks were created which have made the river into a series of dams.

Sitting suspended from 6.30 p.m. to 8 p.m.


Mr ANDREW —Prior to the dinner suspension I was reflecting on the River Murray and on the popular view that exists in the community that it is a dying river. In fact, I was making the point that over the last decade or so there has been quite a dramatic change in river management, a change that the parliament ought to be aware of and a change that Australians should celebrate.

It is widely felt that much of the problem with the river is the result of irrigation, and there is some truth in that. But what needs to be borne in mind is that much of the problem facing the River Murray basin is the result of natural saline drainage inflows that existed long before white man and possibly well before any human beings roamed this continent of Australia.

Many of these natural inflows, which have existed, as I say, from time immemorial, have now been tapped and that water diverted. The work that is now needed on the Murray-Darling Basin is the interception of drainage inflows that result from irrigation. A good deal of work has already been done in drainage inflows resulting from irrigation, but some of the need for the work is solely the result of what has been the historic style of irrigation in New South Wales, Victoria and in South Australia.

In the past, a number of irrigation schemes—and I now talk specifically about my own state of South Australia—were built during the early part of this century, using open concrete channels as a way of getting water to each of the land-holders' properties. These were schemes that were under the government's administration and provided a very successful and low cost way of getting water to each property.

The dilemma with these schemes was that because the water came via open channels it was assumed that all of the growers would use a flood irrigation technique to meet the water demands of each plant. The end result of that was that in every case the plant did not simply receive the amount of water it needed, nor was the soil simply taken to saturation point; the reality was that the water was taken well beyond saturation point through flood irrigation and this excess water then ultimately found its way back into the river channel.

So, particularly since the 1970s, there has been a progressive upgrade of the government irrigation schemes throughout the Riverland area. As a result, in government irrigation areas, the open concrete channels in those sandy soils—which were themselves cracked and as a result had irrigation water running out through the cracks, not going to any particular irrigation task but simply being wasted—have now been replaced by sealed pipelines, ensuring that every grower simply gets on demand the water he or she needs for their irrigation property.

This means that modern techniques such as low throw sprinklers or drippers can be engaged so that the amount of water used has nothing to do with soil saturation but relates only to the amount of water that the plant is going to require, and drainage is all but eliminated.

I make these points in this grievance debate tonight because, while there has been an upgrade of government irrigation schemes across South Australia, there is one govern ment irrigation scheme for which the Commonwealth has responsibility, and this is the irrigation scheme in the Loxton area. The Commonwealth has responsibility for it because it was established as a war service land settlement scheme. It was set up, obviously, post the Second War, and returned service men and women were encouraged to take up plots in the Loxton irrigation area.

It is therefore the only Commonwealth irrigation property along the Riverland area of South Australia. Unless the Commonwealth takes action, it will also be the only irrigation scheme in South Australia that will not have been upgraded. I therefore rise to plead with the Minister for Primary Industries and Ener gy (Mr Anderson), who has been sympathetic to this call, to accelerate the process by which the Loxton irrigation area may be rehabilitated. I would find it intolerable not only as a member of the Commonwealth parliament but particularly as a member of this government to have a non-rehabilitated irrigation area in my electorate which was in fact the responsibility of the Commonwealth.

Given that this government has already established its credentials as an environmentally sensitive government, given that money has already been allocated to the rehabilitation of irrigation areas, given that the interception schemes for saline inflows have already been funded in order to keep down the drainage in the River Murray basin, it is appropriate that the program for intercepting drainage water at Loxton and the program for rehabilitating the Loxton irrigation scheme be brought forward and accelerated.

I should make the very pertinent point that this is not a plea for the Commonwealth to spend money. The state government of South Australia stands prepared to match whatever the Commonwealth is doing, and the growers of the Loxton irrigation area have already voluntarily established a water rate which is higher so that they can build a fund by which they can make a contribution to area rehabilitation.

We therefore have the growers, the state government and the Commonwealth recognising this need. What is now needed is Commonwealth dollars being allocated to the purpose. A study is in hand to find the most efficient way of rehabilitating Loxton. The good news is that the rehabilitation will almost certainly save 30 per cent of the water that is currently being used in irrigation in Loxton and that will be able to be reallocated to promising crops such as grapevines, olives or almonds. (Time expired)