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Wednesday, 29 February 2012
Page: 1204

Senator GALLACHER (South Australia) (13:29): I rise to speak on an issue of great importance to all South Australians, and that is the health of the River Murray. Indeed, we are within the 20-week consultation period, which I believe is an opportunity for the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to really discuss the outcomes of the draft plan and develop the final plan without the extreme rhetoric that has been played out in the media.

If we do not have the level-headed discussion needed, we run a very high risk of no action. I am talking about a plan that does not favour one outcome over another, but an outcome that achieves healthy rivers, strong communities and sustainable food production. I believe this is paramount and we have a real opportunity to achieve this now. We must not let it slip. If no action were to occur it would result in some major implications for South Australia, because that state has the most to lose. Not taking any action will not only result in the environmental deterioration of the River Murray but also run the risk of destroying whole communities in South Australia.

Future droughts, coupled with the status quo, would devastate the whole River Murray. When seeing coalition leaders playing politics on this issue rather than doing the right thing for the Murray-Darling Basin a lot of South Australians are very concerned.

I believe we should recognise that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority is an independent authority that has no political motive in this debate, so its process of consultation and science must be respected. It is pleasing to see prominent South Australian Liberal Party members recognise this and even support the Murray-Darling Basin Authority Plan. However, their federal leader, Mr Tony Abbott, is far less than convincing. On this side of the chamber, our position remains unchanged. It is well known that in the 2010 federal election the health of the River Murray was a primary issue for the South Australian Labor Party.

I am not going to stand here and play the numbers game on the sustainable diversion limits. We have seen the debate progress from the numbers produced, when the guide to the draft came out, through to November, when the draft plan was produced. Now we are hearing groups state various numbers in this consultation period, and I am sure there will be even greater debate when the actual plan is released.

The number of gigalitres should not be the issue in this debate. Instead, we should be discussing what is needed to achieve the right outcome. What I have seen of the draft plan is that this is an achievable goal, and I am confident that after this consultation period the three main outcomes will set out our path to long-lasting reform. These main outcomes are healthy rivers, strong communities and sustainable food production. This reform will strengthen the resilience of the Murray-Darling Basin system so that in times of drought and with the effects of climate change the Murray has a chance to remain in a position that will not be compromised.

One of the major issues for South Australians when talking about the three outcomes is salinity. This is a real issue for the lower regions of the Murray as on occasions some areas are too salty for drinking, irrigation and livestock. For many years now we have heard expert after expert express the problems, particularly in the lower regions of the Murray. Salinity does damage to the crops for irrigators and also damages the ecological life that resides in the Murray. Low flows have meant exposure of acid sulphate soils to the air and increasing salinity.

The issue of salinity was wonderfully put in the House committee report into the Murray-Darling system:

The soils and groundwater of the Basin release salts into the rivers. This salinity is natural and, under natural conditions would be transported down the system and out the mouth during times of high rainfall.

It goes on to say:

… the MDBA estimate that two million tons of salt would need to be flushed out of the system each year to balance the entry of salt into the rivers.

The report continues with a detailed explanation:

Droughts tend to see less salt regularly flushed from soil profiles or flowing through depleted aquifers. Flows move salt through the river system. Flows out of the Murray mouth prevent the accumulation of salts in the Lower Lakes and Coorong. During the drought, the Murray mouth has been dredged open. The mouth of the Murray was regularly sand blocked prior to river regulation by structures and lochs. The health of the entire Murray-Darling Basin is not indicated by the open or closure of the Murray mouth.

The saline nature and propensity for blue-green algal outbreaks are inherent in the character of the ephemeral Basin streams. Ensuring there are adequate flows to move and flush salt and nutrients out of the system is a responsibility of all who depend on its waters

Yes, this does go into the issue of dry-land salinity, as well, but also illustrates the need for the Murray to dilute the saline inflows and to the flush the saline water that has entered the river and simply sits there due to the lack of flow. This is very insightful, and shows the importance of a healthy river system.

South Australia has also been acting to reduce salinity by keeping the mouth open through dredging. Other important initiatives, such as recycling water through stormwater capture and the construction of the desalination plant, have been aimed at reducing our reliance on the Murray. However, the most important way of flushing the salinity out of the system is through greater flows, and the only way for this to occur without waiting for floodwaters or greater rain is by returning more water to the Murray-Darling Basin.

South Australian communities have also felt the full brunt of the drought, on top of the low flows to the mouth of the Murray. Communities have suffered from a lack of tourism, which has only recently come back to life due to last year's floods. Fish are back and the boats are back and activity is occurring.

But let us talk briefly about the lost voices in the deterioration of the River Murray—that is, the native fish, birds and other animal species. They should not be lost in the conversation. I am confident that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority is using the best available information to develop the basin plan and help the natural habitat of these species.

South Australians do not want to see bandaid solutions such as dredging, which has come at a cost of around $40 million. For eight years, six million cubic metres of material has been removed from the mouth. Thankfully, with the floodwaters making their way to the mouth, dredging was halted in 2010. However, South Australia should not accept bandaid solutions any more, and that is why reform is drastically needed. I ask all senators and members in this place to consider the plight of South Australia, a state that has done its share of hard yards supporting the Murray. It is not just about the Murray mouth being open. Let us not forget that during the drought South Australian irrigators also faced increasingly greater costs in purchasing additional water allocations or in reducing the water to their crops, typically a lose-lose situation. In this debate we must also remember that in 1969 South Australia had capped its own allocations, using only seven per cent of the extracted water in the Murray-Darling Basin. Continued growth in water use led to a basin-wide cap on surface water diversions being imposed in 1995. All jurisdictions now have a cap on surface water diversions in place. It should also be noted that many parts of the basin have seen little or no growth in diversions for some decades.

The Australian government's approach to water recovery is based on the common starting point of today's allowable diversions. No-one has been singled out under this approach, and no-one is disadvantaged. It is a real shame that other states do not recognise this move by South Australia in 1969 or recognise the work that South Australia has done for the Murray. What this cap did for our state is that our irrigators had to change their behaviour with regard to water. They have done this with the greatest success, maintaining high levels of food production within their allocation of water. We are well-known improvers on how we use water, and this has been done through investment in technologies and increased efficiencies. We hope that the model of innovative technologies improving efficiencies for irrigation will be integrated throughout the Murray-Darling Basin.

I have been very public on the issue of infrastructure and I will continue to advocate for investments in this area because it is a practical solution that benefits irrigators and the river. It is extremely pleasing to see that improvement in infrastructure is an important objective of this federal government. As I have said, we have seen infrastructure projects work in South Australia. If these are applied to the rest of the country with even greater innovative advancement, much more water can be left to flow down the river. The Labor government is putting $4.8 billion in to hundreds of infrastructure and water management projects across the basin as part of the Water for the Future initiative. This is part of the government's commitment to bridge the gap to the proposed levels of water use through investment in irrigation efficiency upgrades and voluntary water purchases, which are getting much more water back to the environment.

If no action is taken and outcomes are not reached, then that will continue to contribute to the trend of decline in many local communities, especially in South Australia. Putting reform in the too-hard basket should not be an option. We have already seen over 1,000 gigalitres recovered. Stopping now will be to the detriment of the work already achieved. The government has also made a commitment that we will not forcibly take water from irrigators—something that is easily forgotten in this debate. The possibility of no reform is not an option that a South Australian federal parliamentarian can take.    I am sure I have the support of all my South Australian federal parliamentary Labor colleagues, and I am certain that reform is the sentiment of the majority of South Australians.

The Murray-Darling Basin is not a system that should be looked at solely through the eyes of a South Australian, and I can well understand some of the concerns raised by other states and groups. However, we all have a lot to lose if we cannot take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fix things. The health of the Murray-Darling Basin is an issue for all Australians, because it affects our ability to produce food in the basin and the ability for communities to thrive. This is not a time to come to a grinding halt halfway through the job. If we pull through, we can achieve the healthy river, strong communities and sustainable food production that we are all seeking. I urge all those in the Senate to understand what the river means to South Australia and to support the federal government and the reforms that are needed to ensure we achieve these goals.