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Monday, 28 August 2000
Page: 16783

Senator McGAURAN (10:10 PM) —I wish to bring to the attention of the Senate the plight of the legendary and magnificent Snowy River in Gippsland which, in only four generations, has fallen from a river which was once immortalised by Banjo Paterson to now being labelled as a series of ponds linked by a trickle of water. Last week during the Senate's up week, I visited East Gippsland and met with Mr Gil Richardson, who is a member of the Snowy River Alliance, a long-time local of the region and a family farmer. Mr Richardson showed me pictures of the Snowy River, two of which were in stark contrast to each other and basically sum up the situation. One picture was of Mr Richardson's grandmother swimming with her grandchildren in 1966, up to their necks in the water of the Snowy, compared with the other picture of Mr Richardson and his grandchildren barely being able to wet their ankles in 1998.

The reason for this is that the water from the Snowy River is captured in the Jindabyne dam, redirected through the hydro power turbines and then inland into the Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers. In other words, the water is locked on the New South Wales side of the border and is being used—for good purposes—by the farmers on that side of the river. Nevertheless, it is now the centre of a very genuine movement of East Gippslanders to have the river restored to its environmental flow or, in plain language, a free-flowing river at the top end of the Snowy River. This icon is basically at death's door: less than one per cent of the original flow at the top end of the Snowy now makes its way down the Snowy River, with the rest redirected to the Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers. In other words, for every litre of water captured by the Jindabyne dam, only two teaspoons are released into the Snowy.

The impact of this reduction in flow is there for all to see. I will read out a list of the effects contained in an East Gippsland Shire Council document titled `The Snowy River lives or dies forever: you can help save the Snowy River'. The list includes: shrunk river channel leaving a sparse river bed, reduction in the number of plant and animal life in the river, increased risks of toxic blue-green algae, degraded river wetland habitat, increased soil erosion and increased salinity. Along with these environmental factors comes the social and economic factors of the loss of tourism and a decrease in the population of towns running along the Snowy. The reduction in the flow has hurt many of these small communities. The reduced flow in the Snowy has not only dried out the river but also hurt the local communities.

The Snowy River Alliance and the local communities support a 28 per cent environmental flow being returned to the Snowy in order to bring it back to a reasonable state. This figure has been achieved in assessments by several scientific panels. The first one was in 1994 where a scoping report commissioned by the New South Wales and Victorian governments recommended a 28 per cent figure, another one in 1996 made the same recommendation and, as late as 1998, a scientific reference panel of the Snowy water inquiry conducted again by the New South Wales and Victorian governments also supported the 28 per cent figure. The 28 per cent flow will improve the water quality of the river, increase the number of plants and animal life, reduce the problem of salinity and also improve the tourism and outlook of those communities which have been hardest hit by the redirection of the Snowy.

Putting the Snowy's water into perspective: for the Snowy River to have sufficient environmental flow, it would only need 2.3 per cent of the total natural flow from the Murray-Darling system redirected. The percentage of water wasted or lost in transmission through inefficient use of the water system presently is about 10 or 11 per cent. So, if nothing else, this debate sparked many years ago has brought to the front the fact that greater water efficiency is needed in regard to the Snowy River mountain scheme and the use of the water along the Murray-Darling system. Looking at this figure, we see that, if the 10 to 11 per cent of water now being wasted and lost were saved, then the Snowy River could receive its 28 per cent environmental flow without taking water away from the other river systems. The savings can be found simply through more efficient farming practices. The Snowy is on its last chance. The survival of the Snowy River now lies in the hands of three governments: the Victorian and New South Wales state governments and this federal government. Currently, the Department of Industry, Science and Resources—

Senator Schacht —How about South Australia?

Senator McGAURAN —is conducting an en-vironmental impact study on the water flow to the Snowy. From this environmental impact study, recommendations will be forwar-ded to Senator Robert Hill and the environ-mental department, and he will review those recommendations. Once that review and recommendations are published, it really will be high noon for those three governments.

To introduce those savings will cost a great deal of money—well over the $100 mil-lion mark—which all three governments must meet. We cannot have a state government, as is happening at the present time—nam-ely, the New South Wales government—shirk-ing any commitment to put forward funds to save the river. We say that the sav-ings must be made, and they can be made so as to return a 28 per cent flow to the Snowy Riv-er. This is what I personally support, this is what the people of Gippsland support and this is what the communities around the Snowy River support. The principle has been laid down that the people of those com-munities have in fact suffered by not being able to use that water over the decades. The people on the New South Wales side of the border have clear-ly had the use of that water, so it is time to return the Snowy to its proper flow, to bring it back to its 28 per cent. There is no doubt this is a difficult situation, given all the competing interests from the three states—New South Wales, Victoria and South Aust-ralia.

Senator Schacht —We got a mention at last.

Senator McGAURAN —If I failed to men-tion South Australia prior to this, I apologise. The interjection by Senator Schacht from South Australia is an indication of the difficulty of this issue—there is no question and no doubt about that—but that does not mean we overlook the main concern of the East Gippsland community, which is a ret-urn to the Snowy. In fact we can thank the East Gippsland community for stirring up this issue to a point where now all three govern-ments are seriously focusing on this issue. I think a great deal of water savings will be made so that all competing interests can be met. Nevertheless, the time is coming where a decision must be made. I just want to repeat: it does seem that the pig in the poke at the moment is clearly going to be the New South Wales government, which has the great-est commitment to this issue but has failed to come to the table to this point. As I said, I wanted to bring this matter to the atten-tion of the Senate because of its seriousness and because of the competing interests.