- Parliamentary Business
- Senators & Members
- News & Events
- About Parliament
- Visit Parliament
Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee
Management of the Murray-Darling Basin system
- Parl No.
- Committee Name
Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee
Nash, Sen Fiona
Xenophon, Sen Nick
Rhiannon, Sen Lee
Hanson-Young, Sen Sarah
- System Id
Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Table Of ContentsDownload PDF
Previous Fragment Next Fragment
Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee
(Senate-Monday, 23 April 2012)
CHAIR (Senator Heffernan)
- Dr McLeod
Content WindowRural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee - 23/04/2012 - Management of the Murray-Darling Basin system
COSIER, Mr Peter Aubrey, Director, Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists
STUBBS, Mr Timothy Paul, Environmental Engineer, Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists
WILLIAMS, Dr John, Founding Member, Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists
CHAIR: I welcome the next witnesses. If you would like to make an opening statement, we would be delighted to hear it.
Mr Cosier : I will make our opening statement very brief because I understand you would rather ask questions than hear more words. In summary, since the plan was released last November, the Wentworth group have released two scientific analyses of the plan. One was released in January, dealing with five specific issues; the second was released a few weeks ago, dealing specifically with the groundwater issues. We would love to answer questions you might have on any of those subjects.
Our conclusion is that the Basin Plan as presented does not provide parliament with sufficient information on which you can make an informed decision—and we do not say that lightly. We therefore believe that the plan should be withdrawn. They should invest the time to do a proper plan and then re-present that plan for public exhibition so the community has informed information. We do not believe this plan has any chance of restoring the river to health and we believe, from an irrigator and community perspective, it will lead to ongoing uncertainty in the basin.
CHAIR: In 2002, from what we can gather, I made a speech in which I said that we have to give up grandad's gumboots or move Adelaide upstream. In other words, we have to move with the times and what Grandpop used to do does not necessarily apply now. As I mentioned to the earlier witnesses, the pasture scene has completely changed from annual pastures to perennial pastures, which get an advantage out of an event in the weather at any time of the year et cetera. I fully understand the challenge that has been presented to the irrigators on this. There have been huge developments in efficiencies in, for instance, growing paddy rice, and I am aware of the very latest of technology, which some people use, I might say. I keep using the Carnarvon example of root zone fertigation. Have you looked at the possibilities of the cost-benefit analysis—and we will hear from a witness tomorrow who may further progress this—of changing the face of irrigation in the Murray-Darling Basin to be more reliant on high-security water by using things like non-paddy rice and root zone fertigation in other crop growing like cotton?
Dr Williams : In my early role on the board of the CRC for Irrigation Futures, we set the goal and, I think by the end of that CRC, there was considerable evidence that you could grow twice as much agricultural product with half as much water using some of the technologies that were available. So there is great scope for that. The fundamental issue, though, as you know, is the need for sufficient water to flush the system through. You cannot just use drip because you will accumulate salt. You are evaporating water, leaving salt behind whenever you grow a crop, a tree or a food product.
So the bottom line is, yes, there are gains to be made and we need to do that, but there are some basic limits to the water balance of an irrigated system where you must have irrigation that has with it an integrated internal drainage system so you can remove that water in an environmentally benign manner into the flow regimes. That is the fundamental point as to why you must have substantive flows in an inland river system: to take the waste products from an irrigation system to the sea. That is fundamentally important. So, whilst you have great scope for improvement, we must have a river system with sufficient resilience in its flow regime that it can distribute the salt back to the sea, where it came from.
CHAIR: You will not have an argument with me, having studied the plantation forestry myth. That is, if you grew plantation forestry high up in the catchment you would improve, somehow, the salinity. In fact it was the reverse, which was in the Loxton study, I think. My point is that we are hearing lots of argument about what is going to happen to places like Griffith, Coleambally et cetera but we are not hearing about what could be the solutions to grow more with less. I am not hearing any. Back in 2002 I nearly got my head blown off by Sharman Stone, Kay Hull and one or two others when I said what I said, which is actually true. The difficulty with having event based crops is what you do with the infrastructure in between the events, such as the rice mill at Deniliquin. So why aren't we urging the government to get stuck into things like non-paddy rice? The average punter does not realise that the paddy is just there to moderate the variation in the temperature of the plant, for god's sake.
Mr Cosier : Given the time, and I know you have lots of questions, I will try and give answers really briefly. If they are too brief, let us know and we can talk more. If we go back to the National Water Initiative, our fundamental concern with the draft plan is that it effectively ignores the social contract in the National Water Initiative. So the NWI in 2003 aimed to achieve two multiple beneficial outcomes: to use the ability to give a permanent water title and to trade water and, later, to add $10 billion to that process to modernise irrigated agriculture. One of the dividends of that process, that industry develop a process, was also to restore environmental flows into the system sufficient to keep the river system healthy forever into the future. The draft basin plan does not do that. It does not achieve those things because it does not do the fundamentals—what science do you need to make a river healthy?
In terms of what happens, whether it be on infrastructure, buybacks or whatever, the Wentworth Group have always argued that that process should be discussed and done with the communities involved, because we do not believe any reform in the Murray-Darling Basin can take place unless the communities affected by those reforms are made part of the process. Again, the process proposed in the basin plan effectively ignores that. We have a basin plan being built by an authority, and we have $10 billion being spent by another arm of government, and the two need to be brought together before you have any hope of achieving a successful water reform program.
Senator NASH: Well done on your very succinct answer, Mr Cosier. If others were as succinct, it would be quite useful.
CHAIR: Can I just follow that up. As you know, I am a believer in that things are changing. You only have to be a farmer to know that. The industry is very disinclined to change what Grandpop was doing in terms of basic crops. The terms of reference for this committee actually include other catchments. So if we are going to drop off to make the thing balance and so that fish do not need legs in the future, does the Wentworth Group have a view? Instead of the next generation of farmers either leaving the farm or getting depression and never getting out of bed, why don't we give the next generation of young farmers other opportunities which at the same time would balance the limit of the use with more efficiency, growing more with less, in the Murray-Darling? Obviously I am referring to some of the opportunities in the north, where there is going to be increasing run-off, more event based agriculture, better science required, and all the rest of it. At the present we have the Western Australian government not owning up to it but giving consideration to letting Ord states go to the Chinese lock, stock and barrel. Why wouldn't we encourage some of the young farmers, like some have done, to go up there and get a quid?
Mr Cosier : I am not going to try and answer your question because we are not farmers and we do not have the expertise. To be frank, there is more expertise on that side of the table on how to farm than there is on this side. Our expertise is in the science of river health. That is where we would prefer to provide you with answers.
CHAIR: So my question is this: at your level of requirement for the environment, given the likelihood of scientific development on more work with less water, what would be the decline in production in your scenario for the Murray-Darling system?
Mr Stubbs : We have not done an in-depth analysis to see with the different volumes what the decline would be. I think the only thing you can look at to get some indication is what we saw in the drought whereby there was a 70 per cent drop in water availability and there was a reduction of less than one per cent in the gross value of irrigated agricultural production. Now there is a whole lot of factors in there that allowed that to happen—commodity prices and whatever else—so it was not just that people were able to get more efficient. But at least I think that shows that you can make much larger changes than the Basin Plan has ever been anticipating and still have relatively strong levels of production.
CHAIR: But wouldn't it make sense in planning to have a plan and put some money into analysing what I have just talked about?
Mr Cosier : That is the answer. Again, this plan does not provide you with the basis for that decision making. We have had 10 to 20 years of research in this area by resource economists, the CSIRO, ABARES and a whole raft of other institutions which led to John Williams being able to give you the answer he gave. But we are now where the rubber hits the road. We are now talking about how much water we put in the river, how much we use for irrigated agriculture and how that process does happen. The Basin Plan was to take the principles of the National Water Initiative and implement them. That is a scientific question and an economic question and a social question, and we do not believe that what has been presented to parliament answers any of those three.
CHAIR: So does the Wentworth Group, for instance, know of the balance between what you would call sleeper licences and mature licences? Obviously, when we woke up the sleepers we overallocated the system.
Dr Williams : The water was held by the public through licence. That was transferred to the private sector. That is a lot of dollars. The fact that the sleeper and dozer licences were also transferred in that process is something too. I know that John Anderson said to me it was his greatest mistake.
CHAIR: You can be sure of one thing that I got a lot of—
Dr Williams : We all feel that we wish we had not done that. The fact is the consequence is we have traded water from the public sector to the private sector on the basis of a social contract that the water would be brought back into the river system sufficient for sustainable river health—and that is what the Basin Plan is about. To me the Basin Plan that is being put forward at the moment does not have a scientifically rigorous base that, as I feel, Australian taxpayers and parliamentarians can trust to say that this plan will return the basin to a sustainable basis in the future—not only the river system but the communities themselves. We need to have a resilience in these communities and if we currently do not allocate sufficient water for the ecological functions of the river we restrict the options that people have for the use of that river. If we put water only on rice fields we do not have it for red gum forestry, we do not have it for a vibrant tourism industry and we do not have it for a fishing industry.
CHAIR: But if we got the science right, and those out there will probably be swearing at me when they hear this, on the cost-benefit analysis of the likes of non-paddy rice—and it is a lower yield but it is a much more efficient use of water—we would then return water to it—maybe without having to have this huge amount of water set aside—just from the savings in the agricultural system.
Dr Williams : I am sure there are lots of ways whereby we have the collective capacity as Australians to put together a plan for a sustainable river basin with equal, if not more, agricultural production than we currently have and even the work of Quentin Grafton showed that with the sorts of reductions that the Wentworth Group proposed the effect on the actual economic output from the basin was quite small. It does not mean that there are not local difficulties that are really bad, but they need to be where the plan needs them to be as to how to manage all this to a more resilient sustainable future. That is what a plan is.
CHAIR: The plan does not seem to accept that there will be changes in the next 100 years to the weather pattern generally, given the changes of the last 100 years. I think that is a fundamental flaw. It is a bit like not having plantation forestry in the thing.
Dr Williams : That is right. To me the plan is misleading scientifically. It is deceptive. I think we are being sold a pup, quite frankly, because it does not deal with climate change and it does not establish what the sustainable diversion limit is for a healthy river over the long term. It is a goal that we as a society may say we cannot achieve, but at least what it is that we require ought to be established on good scientific grounds and presented before the Australian public. That is not there.
Senator XENOPHON: Is it a political fix?
Dr Williams : I believe that the numbers put forward to us are seen as a compromise. They are certainly not based on a full scientific analysis of what the basin requires. When we say that, that means: what sort of confidence can we have that this amount of water will return us to a sustainable future? We do not know that, and I believe we need to know that. The second thing is: we need to realise that groundwater and surface waters are connected, in most instances. At the moment, until you establish where the groundwater systems are and without recognising the implications of taking water out of the groundwater system on the surface water—and that being done properly, which the Basin Plan does not do—you have no understanding of the impact of the groundwater allocations on the subsequent surface water allocations, which makes them most uncertain.
CHAIR: One of the things that quietly alarmed me—we have got them tomorrow—from the previous witness was when he talked about Gunnedah and the Namoi extraction. He talked about there being a lot of storage in the Great Artesian Basin, but what he did not talk about is that you can have big storage but it is the recharge that is the point. We have gone to all this trouble—
Dr Williams : That was the thing that struck me. I heard that and I could not believe it. It is about recharge. If you are uncertain about the recharge, then your extraction has to be a small proportion of that recharge. That is on internationally known, scientifically based methods of determining groundwater extraction. The storage is not the issue. It is the recharge, the confidence we have in that recharge number and its periodicity—how does it change over time?
Senator RHIANNON: Mr Cosier, you said in your opening remarks that the current plan should be withdrawn. Could you inform the committee as to whether you have conveyed your advice to Mr Knowles and/or Mr Burke and, if so, what their response was? Also, if the plan were withdrawn, how should we come forward with a scientifically rigorous plan that meets the long-term needs of the Murray-Darling Basin, of both the environment and the communities?
Mr Cosier : I might give a brief summary answer and then perhaps ask Mr Stubbs to go through the specific things that the science needs to do. The broad answer, which has alluded to by Senator Sterle, is that we have had a lot of rain in the basin in the last 12 to 18 months. In other words, nature has been kind to us. So we are asking ourselves and asking you: what is the rush? Why are we rushing a flawed plan through parliament this year and then doing a review of the plan in two years? Why don't we use the time that we have available, given that we have had a fortunate season, and get the science right so we can then start to answer the questions that Senator Heffernan was asking about the social and economic impacts of that? Mr Stubbs will go through those in a moment.
Our suggestion is that the plan be withdrawn and, instead of having a 2015 review, we put in the time to do the science, the economics and the social issues properly. To fully answer the question, I might ask Tim Stubbs to go through the five fundamental flaws in the draft plan that we think make it impossible for parliament to make a decision.
Mr Stubbs : Primarily, what we would be hoping for from this plan and, I guess, what anyone would need to make a decision, would be to clearly understand a range of scenarios—not just one number that seems to have come from who knows where but a range of scenarios that clearly outline the environmental outcomes or the outcomes for the river for those scenarios; the constraints that may prevent that scenario from being achieved and the costs of addressing those constraints; and, finally, the social and economic costs and benefits of each of those scenarios as well. That is what the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists believe should be produced so that everyone can clearly see what the costs and benefits are for a range of scenarios. The science seems to indicate that you need to be up around 4,000 gigalitres if you want to just achieve the minimum targets to have a functioning system. Obviously that is going to have social and economic impacts. We need to be able to see those clearly. The authority definitely have the tools—they do have the best model; they were right when they said that—to be able to outline those scenarios and the outcomes. The big problem we have is that with what we have here no-one can make any decision at all. Firstly, as John pointed out, we do not have any information on what the actual outcomes are. I received this about two weeks before the consultation period closed. It is one of four volumes, and it actually tells you the outcomes for the different assets. There are not many people who would have had the time to go through all these and then cross-reference it with a whole lot of the other documents, to actually get any idea of what the environmental outcomes are. The Goyder Institute for Water Research have indicated that we might lose two-thirds of the Chowler flood plain under the current scenario.
Senator RHIANNON: Sorry, lose two-thirds of what?
Mr Stubbs : The Chowler flood plain, which is a Ramsar-listed site in South Australia. It is not very clear what that means for the Ramsar listing; it is not very clear what that means for the actual health of the system. That is just one of multiple sites up and down the system. It is completely impossible to understand what the environmental outcomes are. The big driver for this volume that we constantly hear is constraints on the system. They have been very poorly mapped out. We have a bit of an understanding of one constraint on each river system—the first one that was reached. There is no costing of those constraints so that we can understand whether, with $8.9 billion for this reform, we can actually address some of these constraints. There is also some dispute about these constraints. The CSIRO, the only group that have been allowed to review the authority's work internally, raised some concern that some of the constraints were not the limiting factor and that it was simply the fact that they chose too little water for the environment. So there is a very big grey area around the central argument as to why we need to be at 2,750. Again, I would have thought this would need to be made very clear so the parliament and the public can understand why the reform is pitched at the level it is and whether this is good value for $8.9 billion of taxpayers' money. Of course we cannot see that.
On the groundwater issue, there has been a massive increase since the guide. The guide was released at the end of 2010. It seemed to align with the science that was around at the time—the CSIRO sustainable yields work that suggested we needed to be reducing our extractions of groundwater in the basin. In the 12 months since then, there has not been any new science done—let us make that clear—but there has been a change of 2,600 gigalitres. We have increased the amount of groundwater we can take by 2,600 gigalitres. I am a little bit shocked at that without new science to back that up. Our major concern with that is that there is no clear picture of the connectivity of those aquifers, and the National Water Commission actually says that we should assume groundwater is connected until it is proven that it is not. I do not believe the authority has done that.
Senator RHIANNON: Connected with surface water?
Mr Stubbs : Yes, connected with surface water. Those aquifers and the surface water interact and are very important. The work we have done—and again with very limited information from the authority—indicates that maybe up to half of that 2,600 gigalitres is actually fresh and is from the fractured rock aquifers and the alluvial aquifers of the eastern highlands, which provide a lot of the base flow for all of the rivers of the basin. So here we may have up to 1,300 gigalitres of water being handed out with very little confidence on whether or not it is connected to the rivers. This water provides the base flow. If you are an irrigator, an environmental asset or anyone downstream, I would have serious, serious concerns about what that might mean for my entitlement going forward in the long term. How is that 1,300 gigalitres going to affect me when I want to pull my water out in five, 10, 15 or 20 years time, if somebody has already taken it out before it got to me?
CHAIR: Such as the Narrandera to Wagga or the bore at Oura, which is the water supply for Junee—I declare an interest; I am from Junee—Temora and West Wyalong, which is 86 per cent river water coming out of the bore. It is something that I have got my head around properly.
Mr Stubbs : There is a huge amount of greyness. Again, why is this included in a plan that goes to parliament with one number selected, one number analysed? The social and economic analysis was done on one number. All of this work has been done on one number. It is not completely clear where that number came from. It certainly did not come from a science base. The guide that was finished—
CHAIR: In fact, in the Mallee and another area in Victoria they are actually agreeing to mine the groundwater under this plan. You aware of it? They are actually agreeing to mine the water in this modern time and age?
Dr Williams : Yes.
Senator RHIANNON: Can I go on to the issue of climate change. You may have heard that I asked some questions about that earlier. There is a scientific briefing from 2010 that you are obviously aware of that factored in a three per cent reduction in water due to climate change. I would be interested in your comments on that and also your comments on how the current plan handles the issue of climate change.
Dr Williams : The current plan tries to handle climate change by not actually building it into the modelling or other means which would have arrived at the sustainable diversion limit. It basically expects us to manage climate change by an adaptive process, which I find hard to understand. So our criticism and concern, as is widely distributed amongst the scientific committee, including CSIRO and universities, is that we really do need to build into the future of the Murray-Darling Basin an ability to be resilient and sustainable in the face of climate change. And it is not.
Mr Stubbs : Just to add to my last answer, to make it clear, the authority did not link to their surface water model. So they have this wonderful model for modelling the surface water and what 2,750 gets you. Just to be clear, that model did not tell them that 2,750 was the number. You select a number and plug it into the model. It is like a sausage machine. So if you put good mince in, you will get nice sausages. If you put bad mince in, you will get bad sausages. So the authority selected a number and put it into their sausage machine. That sausage machine is over there running completely independent of this 2,600-gigalitre increase in groundwater extractions. So all the numbers that you are being told that have come out of that sausage machine—and CSIRO's analysis of what came out of that sausage machine said it will not achieve the majority of targets, and, again, these targets are only minimums to maintain a functioning system; they are not pristine; we will not achieve the maturity with the sausage that they have put in there—have not included an increase of 2,600 gigalitres of groundwater extraction over here. They were done in different parts of the authority. Unfortunately, they could not link them up.
CHAIR: I should bring your friend from Adelaide in, Sarah Hanson-Young. Mr Cosier, did you want to add something? Did you want to say something a little earlier that you did not get to say?
Mr Cosier : Tim just answered the question, but the summary is that this parliament, if this draft plan is presented to parliament, is being asked to sign off on a sustainable diversion limit which withdraws 2,700 gigalitres, which could increase groundwater extraction by 2,600 gigalitres and which in the process will spend $9 billion of taxpayers' money. Yet we are being asked to believe that we can come back in 10 years time and have another go. I do not know how often this parliament is going to allocate $9 billion to fix a river, but I sure as hell do not think it is going to happen in another 10 year's time.
CHAIR: There are some parts of the system where up to 40 per cent of the river flow is actually groundwater entry. A lot of people do not understand that.
Dr Williams : That is right.
Mr Cosier : The recharge areas. The rivers get water from the land. It is either from run-off recharge or from alluvials. So you only have one bit of water.
CHAIR: Of course the other challenge for everyone is that the more efficient you make your groundwater use the more pressure you put on the recharge.
Dr Williams : That is right.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I wanted to have some clarity around the groundwater and surface water links. We heard earlier directly from the authority. Tony McLeod was saying that they have examples of the connectivity and that in some cases they are confident that 300-gigalitre extraction would be fine. Are you suggesting that we simply do not know enough and that we should be taking a risk based approach or is the authority using a different basis of science by which to make that type of assumption, that the Wentworth group simply do not support?
Mr Stubbs : I think we know enough about some aquifers. We definitely know enough to know that it is very dangerous to make the massive increase in groundwater extraction without really serious and clear understanding of all those aquifers and of how they interact with the river. One thing that we need to raise is that there are quite accurate and robust models for about 13 of the 76 groundwater units that the authority has looked at. There are models there. The authority's approach has gone against earlier identifications of what needed to happen even in those areas. In the other areas the authority has used a modelling tool which was only ever meant to prioritise aquifers. It was never developed as a tool to accurately predict volumes and recharges and, hence, levels of extraction. There are some very big assumptions that have been made that are based on models that were not intended for the use that they have been used for.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: In terms of the 2,750 gigalitre figure—I have read your report and I know where you stand on that—obviously there is significant concern in South Australia around the fact that, when it is very dry, they are not even going to get that much. How should we be building into a model, by which a plan like this needs to be based, the ability to understand those changes in run-off when times are tough to keep those ecosystems as viable as possible?
Mr Stubbs : It is a very important point, and the plan definitely does not provide with the information to understand what will be the outcomes when we do hit dry times again, and we most certainly will. I was interested to see a quote recently in a newspaper article where Mr Knowles said that this was not a plan for drought. That is a huge concern. Drought is when this plan should be at its most effective. We need to be able to avoid the outcomes we saw in the last 10 years when the drought occurred. I know the Goyder Institute in South Australia has raised some serious concerns about the performance of this plan in drought. It has concerns about the outcomes for the Lower Lakes and the Coorong in times of drought and particularly for salt export. The basin has a target of exporting two million tonnes of salt per year. There are some very significant concerns in the work of the Goyder Institute and the report they released recently about the capacity of 2,750 to achieve that outcome.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Thank you. With your overall opinion that the drought section, as is, needs to be pulled and rewritten, how easy or complicated—if indeed it is complicated—would it be to model the required amounts of 4,000 gigalitres in a way that parliament could then, based on what you have already said, have all the information in front of it to be able to make a valued judgment on what type of plan we want and what we are prepared to trade off, if indeed we go with a lesser amount?
Dr Williams : Scientifically and technically it is possible to do. I think the guide had set in place the range of requirements to give you levels of confidence in returning the river to sustainability. I think that is still a very valid means of saying it because the science can give you some indication. If you use this amount of what, what level of confidence can you have as a taxpayer that you will get a sustainable functioning river? To do that with 4,000 gigalitres, we did some preliminary work that suggests it is entirely feasible. I think the modelling capacity is there, from my background in CSIRO and also my background in the CRCs.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: There is the ability already in the technology and the models that are available to put in that figure.
Mr Stubbs : Definitely. The authority has the tools and has some very good people doing a very good job at the level of modelling. It would take them approximately two months to run the model for a different scenario. If we were not on this deadline of getting everything wrapped up by the end of the year, we could do a range of scenarios and get a very full understanding of the different outcomes—environmental, social and economic—and also of the constraints in a relatively short time so that parliament could make a very well informed decision on the future of the basin.
Dr Williams : Senator, can I add one important point, and that is that the major constraints that we have seen play on the sustainable diversion limits to date are the constraints of flooding private land and public infrastructure and the fact that we have got a river basin that is severely channelised to maximising its irrigation potential and not necessarily the flooding of flood plains. Therefore, in my judgment, a draft plan should be about how we manage these constraints—some of them legal, some of them policy and some of them infrastructure—so that we can actually flood the flood plain, particularly for the middle level floods. If we cannot do that, we can never return the river system to sustainable levels.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Thank you for that, because that was actually the next question I was going to ask you: at what level do you put these concerns of the authority in relation to the constraints? It is not just the authority now; it is also Minister Burke, of course. Every time the figure of 4,000 or, indeed, anything above 2,750 is mentioned, the knee-jerk reaction is: 'Oh well, but there are constraints that stop us.' My view is that surely we should be identifying what it is that we need and then work out how we deliver it.
Dr Williams : Exactly. I think we need to have the science properly reviewed to show us what the basin needs in terms of flow regimes and volumes of water to be healthy and sustainable through climate change into the future, know what that is, and then work together to find how to get there.
Mr Cosier : In the statement that we released in January, on page 5 we have identified five fundamental pieces of information you need to allow you to make a decision. Frankly, if a private sector company tried to put out an EIS in Australia with the level of information lacking in this plan, it would never have seen the light of day. Yet we are asking parliament to sign off on the next 20 or 30 years for the future of the Murray-Darling Basin plan. The five fundamental pieces of information include the authority modelling identifying how much water is required to achieve a healthy river and the cost and feasibility of overcoming infrastructure constraints up and down the system so that those environmental flows can be delivered downstream. Obviously, they should incorporate the impact of groundwater extraction into that modelling. Where they are unable to do that because the information is not available, they should do what the National Water Commission says and assume that they are connected until proven otherwise. They need to account for the risk of climate change on that system, and they need to identify the volume and frequency of flows that are required to keep the Murray mouth open during times of drought and discharge salt out of the basin. That is basic information, all of which is able to be gathered and presented back to the community and parliament in a reasonable amount of time, and we believe that is what should happen.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Mr Crosier, your report is quite damning of this whole process. One phrase that you use is 'manipulated science'. Putting aside the environmental consequences of not delivering a plan that sets up the river for the future, as you have put it, are you concerned that this type of process leads to a dangerous precedent when it comes to transparency in scientific modelling and information to the parliament?
Mr Cosier : I actually faith in our democratic process. Forums like this allow us to expose these things. So, no, I am not negative or depressed because these issues are being exposed.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: What do you say to people who suggest that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority is an independent body and politicians should just butt out?
Mr Cosier : Let me answer the question in a slightly different way. The reason you establish an independent authority is to provide evidence and information for the government and, in this case, the parliament through its disallowable processes to make an informed decision on the future health of the basin. We believe that the authority has all the information it needs or that it can acquire that information within a reasonable space of time. It strikes us that the only reason to try and rush this through parliament would be for a political outcome, because there is no way that you would want to rest the future of this basin on the plan that we have. At the end of the day, you cannot cheat nature. If parliament does sign off on this plan, which we know is fundamentally flawed, come the next drought we will have the same problem. So this plan will not solve anybody's problem. Irrigators will be left with just as much uncertainty as they have now or more in five years time. The system will continue to degrade. As I said earlier, what is the rush? We now have a system full of water. There is plenty of time to get this science done, so let us do it properly.
CHAIR: Senator Hanson-Young. I am going to have to go Senator Xenophon, if that is all right.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Thank you, Chair.
Senator XENOPHON: Mr Cosier, you made the observation that if this were an EIS, an environmental impact statement, for a private sector firm, it would fail. You are confident of that assertion?
Mr Cosier : Could you imagine a mining company producing an EIS that did not tell you what the environmental impacts would be of their proposal? That is the fundamental issue here: the irrigators, the community, the scientists—nobody knows what environmental outcome we will get from this reform.
Senator XENOPHON: In relation to the modelling, has the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists asked for modelling from the authority and failed to receive it? Have you actually asked them for further details? Mr Stubbs, are you satisfied that what you have got is sufficient in terms of their modelling and their assumptions?
Mr Stubbs : I think they could definitely do more modelling. We have not specifically asked them to do any runs in particular. We have just identified that they should do a range of scenarios and provide clear and transparent information so that everyone can understand the outcomes.
Senator XENOPHON: Are you satisfied that they have given you the modelling that they have done, or is it more the case that you believe that more modelling needs to be done?
Mr Stubbs : It is probably a little bit of both. It comes back to the example of a private firm putting in an EIS in a similar way. The authority has been releasing material over the whole 20 weeks of the consultation. As I said before, this volume here is one of four volumes that was released about two weeks before the end of the consultation. They are making it very difficult for anyone to actually fully—
Senator XENOPHON: For the benefit of Hansard, that is about 300 pages?
Mr Stubbs : A whole range of small reports have been brought together here, and there are apparently four more of those. I know that there is groundwater information which was released after the end of the consultation period.
Senator XENOPHON: When was that? After the consultation period?
Mr Stubbs : Yes, apparently some material was going to be put up just before the end and they had an issue—
Senator XENOPHON: I wonder, through you, Chair, whether we could get hold of that. If that is the case, it does not seem satisfactory.
Mr Stubbs : I guess, generally, we cannot understand the outcomes of the modelling run they have done. It is very opaque. It does not clearly state what the outcomes are for Ramsar or for assets. It could have been clearly and easily stated. Even with just one scenario, we cannot understand the costs and the benefits of other scenarios, what we could actually achieve and why we are locked at this one scenario. So we really have a complete dearth of information not just for the scenario that has been looked at but even for other scenarios to understand what could be achieved.
Dr Williams : If I could add to that, Senator: the issue is that the model is fine. The models that they have been using, the sausage machine, is fine. CSIRO has had a look at all the cogs and they all look fine. What it does not do is say, 'What does it mean what comes out the end?' What we have not got is an independent scientific review of the science that determines the sustainable diversion limit. What we have got is that the science has analysed the structure of the sausage machine but not whether we have actually asked it the right questions and, if we did, what would the science look like. We have not had transparent, independent science.
CHAIR: Surely, the first thing towards that end would be to own up to what the assumptions are.
Dr Williams : Of course. The assumptions in the models are specified to some extent, but the point is that we are not asking the question that I think is the scientific question: 'What are the water requirements and water regimes under the climate now and into the future that the Basin requires to satisfy the environmental assets and the ecological function of the Basin?' That needs to be put to a scientific review. Has the basin authority got the tools to in fact do that? They have got tools whereby, if you put a number in, it can perhaps tell you what it will give you.
Senator XENOPHON: Don't you think they can do that with their resources?
Dr Williams : Beg your pardon?
Senator XENOPHON: Do you think they are capable of doing that?
Dr Williams : I believe so, by drawing on the rest of the resources that are in the Australian universities and the CSIRO.
Mr Cosier : They can. They have not been asked to/have not been allowed to.
Senator XENOPHON: Mr Cosier, that is quite serious. You are saying that they have not been allowed to. On what basis do you say that?
Mr Cosier : As Tim Stubbs says, they have modelled a number and they have not modelled a series of numbers against a set of outcomes that are sought to be achieved. The Basin Plan describes environmental outcomes that are desired but the model has not been asked to give you what is required to achieve those outcomes. Instead it says, 'Model this number and tell us how much we get towards those outcomes.' Perhaps Tim could explain it better.
Mr Stubbs : And the outcomes achieve the minority of the objectives that were set—again, objectives just to maintain a functioning system, not to set it back to pristine. I will read a short section out of one of the authority's own documents—
Senator XENOPHON: I am running out of time. I am anxious as I want to ask questions about South Australia.
CHAIR: How long will it take—a minute?
Mr Stubbs : About two seconds.
CHAIR: Righto. That is fine.
Mr Stubbs : It is a short section that talks about how they arrived at that 2,750 number. It says:
By integrating the available information, and through considered judgment, MDBA established a range of sensible ESLT options for further and more robust analysis using the hydrologic models. In determining these options, MDBA has attempted to strike an appropriate balance between environmental, social and economic outcomes that protects and restores key water dependent ecosystems across the Basin but within the context of a healthy working Basin.
CHAIR: I surrender!
Mr Stubbs : If you look back at the pieces of information that they used to make those 'sensible' ESLT judgments, you see they have misquoted their own work in the guide. They have said the guide suggested a range of 3,000 to 4,000. The actual science in the guide suggests a range of 3,856 to 6,900 or something or other like that. They have used a misquote of the Wentworth Group's work and they have used some modelling that was never released to start at their 'sensible' ESLT judgment.
Senator XENOPHON: So the take-home message from the Wentworth Group is that we have had some rain in the system and we have a bit of breathing space to get it right?
Mr Cosier : Yes, and the information you need to make a good plan is either available or can be acquired in a reasonable amount of time.
Senator XENOPHON: Finally, if I can put this to you, Mr Cosier, and any other members of the panel, the big issue in South Australia are the concerns—interestingly both from farmers and environmentalists—that we have not really been credited for abiding by the cap and also for the earlier water efficiency measures we have adopted. Do you think that those concerns are legitimate in that context?
Mr Cosier : It is not our area of expertise. All we are doing is offering our opinion rather than information. But I was very interested in the earlier conversation you had about distortions in the market. So that really is a question for parliament to answer, not us, as to what is fair or unfair in terms of which communities bear what. That is your job. That is not for us to comment on.
Senator XENOPHON: But as a matter of fact do you agree that historically South Australia has abided by the cap whereas other states have not?
Mr Cosier : Indeed, but I would take it further and say there are significant economic distortions in the water market in the Murray-Darling Basin and I would expect that when parliament does make the judgment as to what is fair or unfair they will take into account all those distortions such as you were saying about the tax deductibility for MIS and a whole range of other issues such as restraints of trade et cetera. But, again, I do not want us to be offering our opinion on that because it is not our area of expertise.
Dr Williams : What we can say, from the work we did earlier on the Lower Lakes and the work that the Gwydir group have done, is that if you want to retain the health of the Lower Lakes—a key issue for the Murray-Darling Basin and the flow through the Murray mouth—you will need much more water than the current 2,750 that you have got. We believe you will need at least of the order of 4,000, from the work that we have done, to provide you with a healthy bottom of the river system—and that is the fact of the matter. The issue is that the water to supply the river can only come from two river systems. It can only come from the Murray or the Murrumbidgee. That is where the water is. That is painful and difficult but necessary if we want healthy rivers.
CHAIR: In relation to the end-of-system requirement to keep the system working, 80 or 100 years ago the river would stop flowing. Do you agree with that?
Dr Williams : Sometimes. Five per cent.
CHAIR: All of sudden there would be a big bust. The sea would come into the lakes et cetera and there would be a big bust and she would get all washed out. Given we have human interference, surely we can model a workable end-of-system requirement. The science I understand exists that says we could lose somewhere between 3,500 and 11,000 gigs over 50 or 60 years, if we got the catastrophic weather that we could have. That is all under scientific vagary. It might be 100 per cent wrong or it might be 10 per cent right. Who knows? Surely we could model what happens if it is 10 per cent right, what happens if it is 20 per cent right, and this is what we will do if that is the case. We are now having a go at that.
Dr Williams : You are absolutely correct in my mind. The question is: we can model what the flow regime out of the end of the system is under a whole regime of extraction and climate futures. I believe that some part of that was done in the original sustainable yields work of the CSIRO in 2008. We do know. That is why we in Wentworth believe that you have to have in excess of the 4,000 to deliver the goals you are talking about.
CHAIR: If you did the science on smarter use of the work, you would be aware that Carnarvon is 40 times more efficient than the average of the Ord and 20 times more efficient than the use of the water in the Murray-Darling Basin. You would be aware that 38 per cent of the run-off, as you correctly point out, comes from two per cent of the landscape and finishes up in the Murray and the Murrumbidgee. If you are going to have a 15 per cent decline in that and less snow and all the rest of it, we have to face up to the facts.
Dr Williams : Those two river systems are the ones that will be most affected by drying under climate change. The summer ones, as you have rightly identified, the ones that feed the Darling system, will probably get some benefits of an increased rainfall.
Senator NASH: I want to go back to the comments you made before Mr Cosier, I think when you were talking to Senator Hanson-Young and at other times as well, that we need to identify what it is that we need, and that has not been done as yet. On that basis, if we have not as yet identified what water we need to go to the environment, how on earth can you come up with a figure?
Mr Cosier : We have done our modelling.
Senator NASH: I will clarify. When I say that, they were talking about your view that the Murray-Darling Basin has not done the work behind identifying what we actually need, yet they have come up with a figure. So, in your view, how has the Murray-Darling Basin Authority come up with a figure? It literally is going to back to what you said before and they have just plucked it out of thin air?
Mr Stubbs : It appears that the guide happened, the response to what was put in the guide played out and the board met sometime after that and identified a number that they thought was a sensible ESLT, ecologically sustainable level of take.
Senator NASH: If the states are not required to do their environmental water plans, all this water is going to go to the environment until 2015, how can the authority come up with a figure if they do not know where and how the water is going to go?
Mr Stubbs : You can come up with a figure. The way the authority has done is that they have said that there are 30,000 wetlands across the basin and we cannot possibly model or understand all of those. They have then brought that down to ones that are of national or international significance. That takes it down to 442.
Senator NASH: That is the 442.
Mr Stubbs : Exactly. Then they have brought that down to 122. Of those they have 18 large really key sites.
Senator NASH: The Ramsar ones?
Mr Stubbs : They are Ramsar, but there are some that are not. They are the most water intensive sites in the basin. They kind of use them as a proxy. They say, 'If we get the volumes of water down the system to water those big sites then, as the water moves through each river system, it will move onto the floodplain and water some of the 30,000 smaller assets on the way.' They have kind of said, 'If we meet the needs of these bigger sites, then we should do the job for the ones upstream as the water comes down and downstream as the water flows past.' For those bigger sites they have looked at the science and the ecology and all the information that says, 'These are the sorts of flow you need to get to different parts of the floodplain.' The floodplain will move up very gradually as it moves away from the river and there are different ecosystems at different levels, and different interactions. We will use Chowilla as an example because it is probably the biggest floodplain site or the most water intensive. For flows of 20,000 megalitres a day you will be putting a flush through and maybe some flow back into some billabongs. For 40,000 megalitres a day, you are starting to get on the lower parts of the flood plain; for 60,000, you are starting to do the red gum woodlands; for 80,000 and above you are starting to water the black box communities that are further and higher on the flood plain.
They have used that structure and then they use the model and the model uses the 114-year hydrograph, but it chops it up and does it thousands of different ways and says, 'Okay, we have picked our number of 2,750; we will punch that into the model.' The model will use that flow and look at the naturally-occurring hydrograph, the peaks and troughs and how they could use the environmental water to add onto a peak, to get up to a flow or to maintain the tail off a peak to keep an area inundated—because science shows that is really important for breeding or the moving of the salts or flushing. They do a whole range of scenarios with that 2,750 gigalitres of water that they have and try to identify the best way to spread that around between the catchments and the best times to use that—not every year but a long-term scenario—to get the best possible outcome.
They pick the number, they put it in their machine and the machine tells them how much to take out of each river or to put back for the environment in each river and the outcomes you will get at each site: 'Will you get the 20,000 megs a day flow?' Yes. 'Will you get the next one?' No. 'We will not achieve that target so we can forget about that part of the system.' That is how you can take a number, put it in the model and be able to say, 'Here are some outcomes.'
Senator NASH: It is sort of the cart before the horse, though, is it not?
Mr Stubbs : It is. Ideally, you would have thought you would have started by saying, 'If these are the targets we have set, we know all the outcomes; let's put them in and run the model and it will tell us what volume we actually want.'
Senator NASH: You see what number comes out the other end. By comparison, with the 4,000 gigs you have said as a minimum—
Mr Stubbs : That is what it is looking like and the work of the guide indicated 3,856, so it is in that ballpark.
Senator NASH: I am just trying to get the contrast. You believe that you as an organisation have accessed the science based evidence to underpin that figure. I am trying to get the different processes that are used that make you more certain that that is a ballpark figure. If it is so much better, why has the MDBA not used your process?
Mr Stubbs : We would say their process, this assets model, is by far and away better than any process we have used. Our process was just a rudimentary, quite scientific approach, but we do not have the tools or the people that the authority has. What we are asking is that the authority use their very comprehensive approach to model what the river actually needs. We have tried to do it over here and we think it is about 4,000. We are asking that they do that with their much better modelling capabilities and their thousands more people and tell everyone what we need to achieve the very minimum targets that you have set.
Senator NASH: Have you asked them that question?
Dr Williams : Yes.
Senator NASH: So what was their answer?
Mr Cosier : There is no answer.
Dr Williams : The question was—
Senator NASH: They have not come back to you. In essence, you are saying you have asked them if they will use the current modelling process they have—which is obviously better resourced than yours—to go through and determine a figure rather than the other way around and come up with a figure first. What did the MDBA say to you when you said, 'Why don't you do the process this way?'
Mr Stubbs : We have raised it through our statements. We have said, 'You don't tell us the number; you need to tell not just Wentworth but tell the public, tell every stakeholder in the basin, and the parliament.' I know the environmental groups have written to the authority specifically asking them to model volumes of 4,000. I cannot respond on exactly what response they got. We have not got any specific response to our statements. Our statement got put on the myth-busting section of the authority's website. In this public consultation process, a statement that we have put out is put up as myth busting and ridiculed on their site. We have not got a comprehensive response.
Senator NASH: Dr Williams, did you want to add something quickly?
Dr Williams : Quite some time ago when we saw this problem emerging, I wrote on behalf of Wentworth to the minister saying we needed a proper scientific review where we actually asked the question that you asked, that is, use the best modelling tools available to find out the water requirements of the basin—put the characteristics that you need in and find out what the requirements are, given the patterns of climate now and into the future. It would have helped us enormously if we had done that. The truth is it was not done. We then chose a number. It is the difference between putting a number in and getting the answer out rather than specifying the requirement and finding out what the number is.
Senator NASH: And making something fit.
CHAIR: It is what you call a political solution.
Dr Williams : We asked for that as a proper, open, evidence based approach to good public policy.
Senator NASH: I have two very quick questions to finish up. One is on the point you raised earlier, Mr Cosier, which does seem to contain a lot of common sense, about if we are going to have a review in 2015 anyway and if we do not have the science and the information we need at the moment then it is just stupid to actually implement something through the parliament now that we are going to review in three years and potentially change anyway.
CHAIR: There would not be a dozen people in parliament who understood.
Senator NASH: Do you have a view as to—luckily you are not a bureaucrat, so I can ask you this—why it is actually time specific and has to go through the parliament so quickly?
Mr Cosier : I think you have a better view as to why than we do, but can I just emphasise your point even more. The Basin Plan does not start until 2019 and it goes until 2029. In other words, we have got about 30 years that this Basin Plan has to stand for. Taking another 12 months or 18 months to fix what are absolutely fundamental flaws to me is a no-brainer. Why they would not do that, I will leave to you to speculate.
Senator NASH: Caution is the better part of valour. Just quickly on this issue of the interception, does it concern you that it seems from what we have heard this morning that the current interception activities just stand and that the MDBA has a view that, 'We will see what happens down the track.' But any of the interception activity at the moment is obviously standing as is and not being touched. Is that an issue for you or how they have actually approached the whole issue of interception?
Mr Cosier : Again, that issue was resolved in the National Water Initiative as assignment of risk and those sorts of issues were dealt with. In terms of the Carbon Farming Initiative, again, I would actually compliment the parliament on the sophistication of that package. It does set up the structural processes for those issues to be addressed. We understand that we have this issue of the Constitution and which parliament has powers to do what. With all that complexity, I would have thought that the thing that the Basin Plan needed to do was to establish some rules by which that is done. In other words, I accept that it is not possible to predict how much carbon would be sequestered into the Murray-Darling Basin in the next 30 years, but if you had a series of rules by which that process was tracked through and monitored over time, you would be in a position to do that. The fundamental principle is that, if trees and grass systems take water out of a river, they should be buying a water title like anybody else. That was the principle of the National Water Initiative.
Dr Williams : Following that up, the issue of recognising that the guide said, 'This is the total extraction from the system.' It included all those matters, not just the irrigation license, but all the other farm dams and interception mechanisms that were there. They were all specified in the guide and when you come to the state water planning process all those other extractions in addition to the legal irrigation licence extractions had to be considered as part of the sustainable diversion limit. That is important. In the guide, it was specified how that would be done to some extent. As Peter indicated, it would be done in the water sharing plan, in the New South Wales language. You would actually recognise in a catchment that you could only take out so much water. If this much was being taken out by your farm forestry and your farm dams then that much was all you could allocate to irrigation.
CHAIR: Can I just put a shot over your bow, though? I did not hear you just say that dryland farming should be part of the licensing regime, I hope?
Mr Cosier : If there is likely to be a significant impact.
CHAIR: This is the shot over the bow. Do not panic, but I am very alert. Let me ask about incorporating your stubble, for instance. We used to grow wheat to a six-foot height. It is now 15 or 18 inches high. We have completely altered the yield profile et cetera. In normally dry land farming practices, with stubble retention and making more use of the moisture that falls out of the sky, at 21 inches or 23 inches bugger all runs off anyhow. Please do not try and set out an argument that somehow we have got to measure it and licence it.
Senator NASH: How would you approach dryland farming? Can you just clarify this for us.
Mr Cosier : I do not want that left hanging either.
Senator NASH: Neither do we.
Mr Cosier : We are not only talking about cropping land; we are talking about grazing land. If there is a fundamental change in the way grazing systems are managed with carbon farming and if that is incentivised, you are likely to see some fundamental changes in carbon storage—that will affect run-off. It might be positive for run-off, it might be negative for run-off, but the bottom line is that it will need to be factored into the SDL. When I said, 'Buy a water licence,' that was the principle for farm forestry. I will clarify that and say that that comment I was making specifically related to farm forestry. The principle generally is that, if we are going to put more carbon back in that landscape from other processes, that will need to be factored in when setting the sustainable diversion limits otherwise you are going to end up with less water in the river.
CHAIR: But please give consideration to the rainfall profile in which this is occurring. If you are locking up country at Ivanhoe which has 10½ or 11 inches of rain—and the bloody dorper sheep are going to bugger it anyhow—you are not talking about run-off out there. If you are on the floodplain of the lower Lachlan, it would be different.
Dr Williams : That is what the water-sharing plan has to do. It has to recognise that there is a certain diversion limit and then the land use will affect that which can be allocated to irrigation licences.
CHAIR: We will have to finish up.
Mr Cosier : Could I just make one further clarification on that point. No-one should be assuming that that implies a bad outcome. Putting carbon back into that landscape does not mean it is a bad outcome for either farmers or the environment. In fact, there can be fantastic outcomes. All we are saying is factor that into the sustainable diversion limits.
CHAIR: I want to ask just one drop-dead question. Someone mentioned earlier that John Anderson said the biggest mistake he made in his time was that the sleeper licences should have been kept asleep—use it or lose it. Has anyone done the calculation—I have a sleeper licence—between sleeper licences and the brain-dead proposition that you would allow supplementary water which was off-allocation—you can run your pump now and turn that into a bloody licence. If they had not done both those things, there is a fair chance we would not be having this argument isn't there?
Mr Cosier : We do not know the answer to that.
CHAIR: Someone should know the answer to that. We will ask someone who perhaps has the ability to answer it. Thank you very much for your evidence today.
Mr Cosier : Again, thank you very much for your time.