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Wednesday, 13 February 2002
Page: 204

Senator LEES (4:00 PM) —Yesterday, in opening the 40th Parliament, the Governor-General talked about the need for `immediate action to tackle salinity and water quality problems'. I want to address these two issues specifically as they relate to my home state of South Australia. As you look at some of the information and evidence, you see that the very survival of communities and regions depends on how we manage our water resources and in particular how we can prevent the spread of salinity in all its forms. The vision of South Australia as a productive, environmentally friendly and environmentally sustainable state, a creative state, can be realised only if it and the Commonwealth look after the most precious resource, and that is water.

We have to reduce our reliance on the Murray, reduce the amount of water that we are taking out of that river system. I would argue at least 20 per cent more water must be allowed to flow down the river and out to sea. The condition of the Murray-Darling Basin is critical, not just as far as South Australia is concerned but as far as the nation is concerned. I think more and more Australians are very well aware of the crisis facing the Murray. Waters have been overallocated by various state governments. The condition of the Murray and the lower Darling rivers in many places is now in a state that could best be described as highly degraded. The cleared land is frequently becoming salinised and biodiversity is declining significantly in many areas. The quality of wetlands in particular is constantly being reduced. The riparian vegetation along the entire river is generally in a poor state.

As I said, there is simply not enough water being allowed to flow down the river. As we see regularly in reports, particularly in the Advertiser, the mouth is shut more and more frequently. The River Murray is also getting saltier. Dryland salinity caused by land clearing and rising water tables is a time bomb, and that time bomb is ticking. It is expected that around 30 per cent of the cultivated land in the basin will be salt affected. Half our woodland birds will disappear. It seems that Adelaide's water supply is by no means safe. It has been suggested that 10 per cent to perhaps 25 per cent of the time Adelaide will not have potable water.

What is going wrong? Why can't we, as a society, a community, that now well understands what the problems are, get our act together in such a way that we could have some confidence in the future of this river system? The Commonwealth government is obviously very much involved through a variety of programs, but what it is actually doing, I would argue, is less than admirable on a number of points. Today, with limited time, I want to look quickly at the 1995 COAG water reform process which created the water rights system, set up and basically enabled the trading in water. I would argue that this is seriously flawed in many ways. Not only did the Commonwealth fail to ensure that the states used that early payment under competition policy actually on the river to better manage water resources but that cash actually disappeared off into state coffers rather than helping to compensate those that needed to look at water management issues. As you start looking closely at the process, the flaws are numerous. The fact that the Commonwealth made $900 million windfall from the corporatisation of the Snowy but only spent $70 million on further irrigation efficiency savings so that more water could be released back for environment flows is one very loud indicator of the problems we are facing.

As I move around South Australia discussing the issue of water resources with farmers and other key stakeholders, it is abundantly clear that we cannot wait any longer for action to be undertaken. It is abundantly understood. One of the problems in South Australia is, I found, that two, three, four and in one case five different departments are involved in the decision making process, all passing the buck backwards and forwards between one another with very few results finally finding their way into practical reality. Despite all the problems we are facing, things could get worse thanks to climate change. That will make it more and more difficult for us to repair the landscape. By 2050 it is expected climate change will cause reductions in the flow of many rivers in the basin. Obviously, with less rainfall in winter and greater rates of evaporation, we will be facing significant problems. Indeed, we are looking probably at a 12 to 35 per cent reduction in the mean flow into the basin. If we just look at one isolated example, the Macquarie Marshes near Dubbo in New South Wales, already we see there significant decline. Some 40 per cent loss of wetland vegetation has already occurred. That brings with it a decreasing number of birds, turtles, frogs et cetera.

While there are many more problems facing the Murray River—and I will be discussing these over the coming months in this place—decline of health of the Murray is not the only critical water issue facing South Australia. The availability of drinkable water and water for stock is even more critical, I will argue, on the Eyre Peninsula. Historically the Eyre Peninsula has relied on water supplies drawn from its underground basins. This has been supplemented by the limited amount of water available from the Todd River system, particularly the Todd Reservoir. The region's population has been assured, year after year, that water supplies are adequate and indeed that water is plentiful. This has been despite much evidence to the contrary. The official response has been, `Don't worry; all is well.'

This evidence, in particular, was coming from farmers who, instead of going down a couple of metres for water, were going down 10, 20, 30 or 40 metres to actually reach water. Evidence was also coming from locals, particularly those who had been several generations in the district, just talking anecdotally about swamps that have dried up. But, no, they were told: `Don't worry; all we need is one good rain and the underground reservoirs will recharge and everything will be fine. There is plenty of water.'

However, information has now come into the public realm that shows very clearly that, for many years, officials have known—those people monitoring the water tables knew that the basins were facing major problems. In fact, it seems that, even at ministerial level, the knowledge was available. The state bureaucracy certainly had this information. I seek leave to table—and I have discussed this with whips and also with Independent senators in this place—some details of ground water assessments on the Eyre Peninsula.

Leave granted.

Senator LEES —Most, if not nearly all, of the water supplying Port Lincoln and beyond, up the peninsula, now comes from the Uley South Basin. As we look through these charts that detail the various basins on the peninsula, we see why. It is basically because most of the other basins have collapsed. The water table is even falling in one basin in the centre of the Lower Eyre Peninsula, and there is now no water actually being drawn out. So as we come to Uley South Basin, which is a lens adjacent to the coast to the south and west of Port Lincoln, we see now that some 8,000 megalitres a year of the 9,000-odd megalitres used on the peninsula is all coming from this one basin. But you can also see, as you look at the graphs on the chart, that this has fallen enormously since monitoring began in this basin in the 1960s and that water tables have indeed got to the point where there is a real risk of seawater intrusion.

As we go through and look at the Lincoln Basin, the other basin where a little water, but very little, is taken out, we see that it is literally within inches of seawater. It is actually sitting on salt water. From those to whom I spoke while visiting the peninsula, it seems that this is the only basin that has been reasonably well used and monitored because they knew that the salt water was so close. As you go through the other basins, you can see clearly that Polda North and Polda lenses have been shut down. As we look at the last remaining significant underground area on the peninsula that is able to be used, we look at the possible incursion by the Southern Ocean. It is known that it is linked, because in years gone by fresh water used to flow out of the basin and you could walk along the sands and walk through it. There is not very much space left in terms of the amount of water being pulled out of that basin before the reverse could easily occur. As has happened further north, you can have intrusion of seawater into that last remaining source.

The Todd Reservoir is highly saline and nearly empty. This is noted on the second page of the paper I have just tabled. It shows you clearly what is happening to the Todd. Water for human consumption can get up to around 1,500 parts per million of salt and then it is undrinkable. For stock, you can take that up to around 3,000, although they will probably not like it very much. The Todd Reservoir has recently recorded levels as high as 6,000 parts per million. Obviously, this is unusable without considerable dilution.

We draw from all of this that the Eyre Peninsula is suffering from both extremely low levels of water and increased salinity. This is not just affecting the lower part of the Eyre Peninsula, because this is the source for the entire peninsula. As you move up the peninsula and talk to people at Lock, they tell horrendous stories of what the water is doing to polypipe, let alone to the fittings on farmers' drinking tanks. If you talk to people about the level of chlorine that now has to be put into this water, they will tell you that it is enough to bleach clothes in the wash. So we see that the entire peninsula is in a state of literal trepidation as to where their water supply is going to come from.

Unfortunately, one of the first announcements by the new Premier of South Australia, Mr Kerin, was a plan to extend the pipeline further. It already goes north and turns out to the west to service Ceduna—by which time, I am told, often the water is barely drinkable. Mr Kerin has now announced an extension into Streaky Bay because that lens has collapsed. The water at Streaky Bay now is so saline that it is unusable. We still do not have publicly available the alternatives that were looked at for Streaky Bay. I know that one of them was desalinisation, but we cannot get the information as to why this was discarded. For those who do have a chance to look at these charts later, you can see what has happened in the Robinson lens, which supplies Streaky Bay. As I said, it is down to sea level. We can see that, for years, the details have been hidden from the community. We can now see, with this extension of the pipeline, even greater pressure put on what is an extremely limited water supply.

I must commend two local Eyre Peninsula people, John Hyde and Sally Tonkin, for their efforts in collecting the information and, indeed, for John Hyde's years of work in trying to get people to talk to him about the water shortages. Now they are finally putting together the documentation and amassing the evidence needed to get greater community involvement. If we cannot get the results through the political process, then the community really needs to get active. I think those ongoing efforts will be given additional impetus now that we have yet more pressure on this particular pipeline. There are more and more individuals becoming involved in the process of finding a solution.

One of the most concerning problems with the paper that I have tabled is the fact that this was not supposed to be publicly available. This is a document that people came upon by accident, having been told for years that not only was this evidence not available but this type of documentation and summary was not available. What we need now is a complete water audit of the entire peninsula, looking at the average rainfall, all forms of water storage, the recharge rates on the various basins and demand. Demand is one of the areas I want to quickly dwell on in my last few minutes.

As John Hyde says, we have to look at extraction rates. He stresses that we are simply not replenishing stock and not seeing the rainfall keep up with what is being taken out. Local authorities on the Eyre Peninsula have promoted diversification into farming practices, such as vines, that take a lot more water than, for example, traditional grazing of sheep, or a crop of wheat. The local catchment management board is now left—largely underfunded, I stress—with the job of looking at this dwindling supply, looking at the crisis that the peninsula is in and somehow making recommendations to government about ongoing management and basic research.

I commend here the mayor of Port Lincoln, Peter Davis. At a recent public meeting he gave some commitments relating to the funding of this water catchment management board. Indeed, the recommendation is that the levy the council puts on properties be doubled so at least they can do some basic research into alternatives and into water management practices on Eyre Peninsula.

While the Port Lincoln City Council has been setting a good example—it is well aware that it needs to set the standard and conserve water itself—I cannot, unfortunately, say the same thing of the Lower Eyre Peninsula District Council. It seems to have done little, if anything, to reduce pressure on the water available. It has allowed vineyards to be established. In one case, I saw the vineyard set up without council approval and then, after the fact, it went to the council and it signed on the dotted line. This has led to further development. I have seen a large housing development where the white posts are in and the roads are in, and there is still no application to the council. Again, they just expect the council to tick it off at the end of the day. It has to stop. We simply cannot keep increasing the pressure while the resource dwindles to little, if anything.

I now want to go through some of the suggestions as to what can be done at this time with resources already so limited. It is obvious that more is being taken out than the rate of recharge, and this is unsustainable. Some have suggested that we just increase the length of piping coming from the Murray. It already goes around to Port Augusta-Whyalla; just add on to that, they say, and pump out of the Murray. I hope that no-one will ever seriously consider that suggestion. Another one is a large plastic sheeting process, which sounds a bit strange when you first think of it—huge areas of plastic sheeting all running into a collection basin— but this is already being done in both Western Australia and western New South Wales, quite successfully. Research so far suggests that it may work down around the Todd. Another suggestion is to simply draw a line in the sand and then say, `Absolutely no more development until such time as we have the catchment management board's recommendations,' and I believe that this is an essential part of the solution.

Many people talk of water conservation measures, and yes, again, the council, industry and others are already doing this. I have met with some people in the seafood processing industry who have already considerably reduced their water consumption, and yes, this is part of the solution. But a major source of clean, potable water is urgently needed. Time is of the essence. I would recommend that what I was hearing up and down and across the peninsula is seriously considered, and this is the salt water desalination plant. The most logical place for this is at Elliston, with its new 50 wind generators, which will be pumping power into the grid during the day. It is well possible that at night that can be used to boost the desalination plant. We certainly should not be seeing coal or fossil fuels being used to produce the desalinated water. Elliston would require, however, about 30 kilometres of new piping out into the Polda Basin. One of the basins is completely dried up. If there were any excess supply of water it could simply be used to recharge the aquifer, and the rest could be pumped back out into the system.

I must emphasise here that desalination technology is not an oddity; it is indeed internationally well accepted and has been used since the 1980s and has been quite common since the 1990s. We are already using it in South Australia on Kangaroo Island. The crisis is now so urgent that Eyre Peninsula as well as the Murray has to be given a much higher priority on people's lists. We must consider differently how we manage water in this very brown country of ours. I say again that the availability of information such as this must be a right, not a lucky occurrence. We need to know what our resources are, and we need resources in other forms to manage them properly. We must start thinking differently. I am calling again for the Commonwealth to take the leadership role not just in solving the problems of the Murray-Darling Basin but also in sorting out increasingly critical problems in my home state of South Australia, particularly in the entire Eyre Peninsula.

Debate (on motion by Senator Hill) adjourned.