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Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee - 24/04/2012 - Management of the Murray-Darling Basin system

GOOD, Mr Roger Bishop, Executive Member, Murray Wetlands Working Group

SMILES, Ms Beverley, President, Inland Rivers Network

[10:07]

CHAIR: I welcome representatives from the Inland Rivers Network and the New South Wales Murray Wetlands Working Group. The Inland Rivers Network has lodged submission 64. Do you want to make any amendments or additions to your submission or to make an opening statement?

Ms Smiles : I would like to make an opening statement.

CHAIR: Just for the benefit of the committee, could you tell us where you come from?

Ms Smiles : I live in Mudgee.

Mr Good : I come from the Riverina, but I am living in Bungendore at the present time.

CHAIR: Whereabouts in the Riverina do you come from?

Mr Good : Leeton.

CHAIR: Righto. Away you go with your opening statement, Ms Smiles.

Ms Smiles : Thanks for the opportunity to present to you today. The Inland Rivers Network is a coalition of environment groups and individuals who have been advocating for the conservation of rivers, wetlands and groundwater within the Murray-Darling Basin since 1991. Accordingly, IRN welcomed the bipartisan moves to improve water management—specifically, the development of an overarching, basin-wide approach to the management of interconnected water sources.

IRN is strongly supportive of the basin plan concept and believes that the basin plan is the best opportunity available to restore health to the highly degraded inland river and wetland systems of the basin. IRN is of the opinion that the objectives and requirements of the Commonwealth's Water Act 2007 provide a strong framework for the development of a basin plan that is scientifically robust and environmentally sound.

IRN has been highly involved in the basin plan process to date, making submissions at all stages of community consultation, attending the MDBA briefings and meetings and conducting community workshops in inland New South Wales and Sydney with MDBA support and participation. IRN is of the opinion that the proposed Basin Plan fails to meet both the key objects of the Water Act 2007 and its own objectives for environmental outcomes—that is, to protect and restore the ecological value and other values of water dependent ecosystems in the basin so that they stay healthy in a changing climate. The reason IRN believes these objectives will not be met is that the proposed return of only 2,750 gigalitres to the environment is based on maintaining significant wetlands at their 2008 mapped extent. This decision has condemned Ramsar wetlands, such as the Gwydir wetlands system in the northern basin, to be maintained at less than 15 per cent of their original extent. To use 2008—one of the driest years on record towards the end of the hardest drought on record—as the base year for measuring the environmental success of the Basin Plan has the same implications as using that year to identify the maximum level of irrigated productivity from the basin.

IRN believes that the science behind the basin guide used the best methods for identifying the ecological needs of the system. The MDBA changed the hydrological-modelling approach adopted in the basin guide to one that is more closely aligned with current river operations and management. This approach has effectively locked in the poor management and ecological outcomes currently entrenched in state water planning and implementation processes. The proposed Basin Plan will not adequately meet one single ecological flow indicator for the Barwon-Darling river system. The golden opportunity for the Basin Plan to fix entrenched problems that have caused the ongoing decline in environmental resilience has been squandered.

IRN believes that the continuation of flood irrigation for rice and cotton production is unsustainable both environmentally and economically. Both industries need to adopt modern watering techniques to achieve the same level of production with less water. Regions depending on monoculture flood irrigation are highly susceptible to both weather and market variability. For example, in the Gwydir in 2005-06, cotton used 86 per cent of irrigated area and 91 per cent of extracted water. In the Barwon-Darling, the dominant irrigated crop, cotton, used 93 per cent of extracted water. The proposed Basin Plan is not recovering any additional water to meet the Gwydir's local environmental needs.

The opportunity to identify key areas of industry restructure and community support is still available to the Australian government. We do not need to condemn our unique environmental assets because of a refusal to adopt best available irrigation technology and industry diversification. A basin plan is required to ensure economic, social and environmental sustainability; the proposed Basin Plan achieves none of these objectives.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. You made a summary of irrigated cotton and rice. The rice industry is a wonderfully vertigrated industry. It which achieves 1,200 per cent vertical integration in value from the paddock to the little packet that you pour the water into, so it is a very lively industry. The great challenge—which I put forward 10 years ago along the lines of your proposition now—was rebutted by the fact that they said, 'Look, It'll depend on the price of the water as to what you use the water for.' There is some truth to that. On irrigated pasture for dairy cows in northern Victoria, the price of water and the availability of that water is in the long term probably going to kill the industry. In terms of smarter technology for growing cotton and growing rice, there is some potential. The cotton industry has improved its yields. It has improved its safety from chemicals et cetera. The challenge is: how do you maintain the infrastructure against the availability of the water against your entitlement—that is, the allocation against your entitlement—and still maintain the infrastructure? The great challenge we have is that, from the evidence we have received, this is a political solution to an imponderable scientific problem. It seems to me that the floodplains are a forgotten cause in all of this. Without getting too hyped up I say that the largest flood plain in the Murray-Darling Basin is at the bottom end of the Balonne system, yet in recent times the government have knowingly had a proposition to issue a 500-odd-gig licence in a system of overland flow which only has 1,200 gigs mean flow—and 25 per cent of that flow since 1921 in 80 years occurred in four years. So it does not make a lot of sense, but thank you for your submission.

Senator NASH: Thank you very much, Ms Smiles. In your opening statement you talked about the Gwydir and cotton and use of water. Why did you use 2005-06 figures?

Ms Smiles : They were the figures supplied by the MDBA.

Senator NASH: I see. So they are the ones that you have used.

Ms Smiles : Yes. Interestingly enough, the catchment-by-catchment analysis provided by the MDBA really does not have a lot of consistency in the way the information appears. But the Gwydir system is something that we have been quite concerned about for a long time, which is why I highlighted that one.

Senator NASH: They were obviously very high figures because that was in the middle of a stinking drought, so it is probably not surprising that those figures were so high. Did you do any work on how, that having been a relatively bad drought year, it looked compared to, say, five or 10 years before?

Ms Smiles : I think the basic issue is that the key product out of the Gwydir that uses the most water and the most land is flood-irrigated cotton. That is the point I was making in those figures.

Senator NASH: How much water does flood-irrigated cotton use per acre on average per year?

Ms Smiles : My best knowledge is of the Macquarie system, and I think it is eight megalitres a hectare. I know that, during the drought, when people were really seriously affected by low allocations, some of the better farmers in the community went to subsurface irrigation: they went to better technology for putting the water on their crops so that they could still make an income with their lower allocations.

Senator NASH: It is interesting, isn't it? I was up on the Liverpool Plains a while ago, and we were having a discussion on flood irrigation. The point was made to me that it is actually very efficient because of the depth of the soils and because the soil structure up there in general—it may not be—is of a certain nature. Is that a discussion you have had with people up around there?

Ms Smiles : Generally the issue is once you have wetted everything; it is the volume of water you need to wet everything and the whole subsoil moisture to keep it there. You are not talking about really deep-rooted crops, so the other technologies of drip irrigation and subsurface irrigation mean that you are not having to deliver the amount of water that is going to have to fill up the entire bucket of the soil to hold it there. That is the whole idea of more efficient irrigation.

Senator NASH: Those soils are so deep they do hold that water, which then feeds back up. But that is probably for another day. In your suggestion of moving away from flood irrigation, did you do any work around the economics of that? Going to a drip system is going to involve energy usage. Particularly now with a carbon tax which is going to put a 10 per cent hike onto electricity bills for farmers—and this is raised with me all the time—did you do any work on costs to farmers of moving away from flood irrigation to a system which is going to require energy to provide it?

Ms Smiles : No, I have not done that work. Actually, a number of years ago I did analyse that in terms of the cost of changing over to another system, though not in terms of energy. There are other ways of producing energy to get your pumps running besides hooking it into coal-fired power electricity sources, so there is a whole range of opportunities in regional communities to diversify into producing their own power that are not going to have a carbon tax associated with them.

Senator NASH: That does come at a cost though—the infrastructure, I would expect. Are you talking about solar and renewable energy and those types of things?

Ms Smiles : Yes, and that is a different bucket of money which will help the communities which we are saying are currently totally reliant on water for their economy. There are a lot of opportunities there for diversifying those economies with different types of money other than what we are talking about here, which has been allocated towards the basin plan outcomes.

Senator NASH: When you say different types of money, what you mean?

Ms Smiles : I mean the new fund that is being created by the carbon tax to go into new forms of energy. There is a whole range of other money out there now which is not directly associated with the money that the government has put into the basin plan process.

Senator NASH: If an individual farmer wanted to go down that track of shifting to drip irrigation or something, how would they access that money?

Ms Smiles : I think it would happen more on a regional or community basis; but there has been the opportunity for individuals—both businesses and residents—to go into the solar system, and there have been lots of constraints now put on that opportunity from the state level particularly. But there is a range of mechanisms out there for people not to be reliant on coal-fired power that will attract a carbon tax.

Senator NASH: It is just that the costs associated with that concerns me a bit.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Ms Smiles, thank you for joining us this morning. You are pretty clear in your submission that the current draft plan does not meet the objectives in the Water Act, and you have also put here the basin plan's own objectives—those that are required in order to protect and restore the ecological values. You have said also that you have been quite involved in the process. What concerns have you raised directly with the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and what response have you had?

Ms Smiles : I suppose the change in the direction of the process from what happened with the basin guide and the fact that that the approach which was taken to develop the outcomes in the guide was to clearly look at what the key environmental assets and ecological functions of the basin required and then to use the hydrological modelling to show how that would be met. What we now have with the proposed plan is working from the other perspective—having a figure and then looking through the modelling of how that figure would then meet any of the required objectives. If you look at the environmental water requirements of the assets, these documents only appeared for the community in February 2012. While the basin plan had been out on exhibition since November, some of the key documents—the hydrological modelling report and the environmental watering requirements assessments—were only available from February, so we have had a much shorter period to have a look at those. Right from the beginning as an organisation, the Inland Rivers Network has seen that the 4,000 gigalitres figure which appeared in the basin guide was really an appropriate compromise volume of water to achieve the objectives—that is, to maintain the resilience of the environment of the basin.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I am interested that you used the word 'compromise', because that is the thing that continues to be raised by people from all quarters: that if we accept that we need a national management plan for what is a river system that does cut across the states and we have to start managing it as a whole, there is going to have to be compromise along the way. You are suggesting that the 4,000 gigalitres is actually the compromise and that 2,750 is not a compromise; it will not meet any of the objectives. Is that right?

Ms Smiles : That figure that is in the proposed plan is actually locking us in to the current implementation of water sharing, particularly in New South Wales, and we have been associated with that process ever since it started and have major concerns with the water sharing plans in New South Wales and the fact that the hydrological modelling approach used for the 2,750-gig figure is recognising all of the constraints in both the policy and the rules. It is not just physical delivery constraints; it is actually the rules for when water can be extracted and those types of things. So it is really locking in the poor management which, as we have seen over a long period of time, will just continue to allow these key environmental assets to degrade over time.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: What hope do you have that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has heard your concerns?

Ms Smiles : We have given them a number of presentations and we have had a number of presentations from the officers of the authority. We had hoped to cause some change in the proposed plan before it went on exhibition. We were not successful with that.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So you saw an exposure draft before it was official?

Ms Smiles : We were aware of the figure that was going to be in the proposed plan and put a lot of effort into communicating with and giving information to the authority. We are hoping that the authority will take into account the submissions that they have received from us. I have tabled our Inland Rivers Network submission to the authority in which we have looked quite closely at that, both the modelling report and the—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Do you feel that the Inland Rivers Network's position around the fact that this is locking in failure—if I can paraphrase what you have said—is a consistent position held amongst similar groups?

Ms Smiles : I think so, yes. I think most of the groups that are really concerned about the future of the environment, the social structure and the long-term economic viability of the basin agree with each other that the proposed basin plan is just not going to achieve those outcomes.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Can I take you through the issue of the groundwater extractions, because that is obviously something that has raised significant concerns as well—not just the low return figure of 2,750 but also the increased extraction. What is your understanding of the rationale from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority for that surprise introduction?

Ms Smiles : My understanding is that it came from the NSW Office of Water and it is actually a proposal to put a very large volume of groundwater on the table for new licences, mainly to accommodate the mining and gas industry for its future plans in the basin areas. It is just totally unacceptable.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Do you share concerns around the fact that even the National Water Commission take a risk based approach to this issue—that until otherwise proven we should assume that groundwater and surface water are inherently connected?

Ms Smiles : As Senator Heffernan was referring to earlier on in the hearing this morning, anyone who lives on a river system understands it quite well, especially your alluvial aquifers and the surface water. But there is quite a deal of connectivity right through lots of different aquifer systems. One of the concerns is that where this new groundwater extraction is being proposed overlays the Great Artesian Basin in recharge areas, and there is a whole range of concerns around this proposal. Those of us who have been following water for a long time know that the knowledge and science around groundwater is relatively new compared to what we know about what is in front of our faces on a regular basis with surface flow. To actually propose in this basin plan to put a whole lot of new licences on the table, when the aim of the exercise is actually to solve the problem of overextraction in the basin, is just heading it in totally the wrong direction.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Do you see that it risks repeating history in a way?

Ms Smiles : Definitely, and if it is adopted then it is the Australian government setting up the taxpayers sometime in the future to have to find money to start buying that water back from multinational mining companies. I just cannot see any good value for anybody in the proposal.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: How do you think small family farmers and irrigators feel about the fact that they are having to deal with less water in terms of what is going to be allocated and available while mining companies are going to be given more?

Ms Smiles : There is quite a lot of concern just generally in the farming community about the impacts of particularly the gas industry but the proposed expansion of the mining industry as well and its impacts on water availability. We had a very good example of that in Orange with the Cadia Mine, with the amount of water that mine used in the middle of the drought. That mine has been given all the treated effluent water from the council. There is a whole range of issues around the way the mining industry currently uses water and its water requirements. I think there needs to be a lot more work done on that before we just blithely put out on the table 2,600 gigalitres of new licences.

CHAIR: I do not want to alarm you, but the logic from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority yesterday on the 300-odd gigs of Gunnedah Great Artesian water was that it is a big storage. There was no mention of the recharge. The logic was thick as a plank. Bear in mind that not even the CSIRO, who we have taken evidence from in the coal seam gas inquiry, which we will revisit in due course, said that they do not understand. They said it might take more than 300 years to rebalance the aquifers after we have a 35-year stopgap coal seam gas industry. As for the thought that you could shut all the farmers up by giving them a big enough cheque, in 100 years time we will all say, 'Why did we do that?'

Ms Smiles : There have been coalmines approved in my area where their own modelling has identified a draw down in the local groundwater system for over a 20-kilometre area for 200 years. The government said, 'Yes, no worries; go right ahead'. The whole issue with the management of groundwater and mining is something that really is not being dealt with.

CHAIR: No doubt eventually we will march. Thank you very much for your time and effort today.

Mr Good : I presume I do not get a blurb in here?

CHAIR: You can have a crack if you want to.

Mr Good : I was hoping to.

CHAIR: Righto. You should just jump in. I am sorry. Away you go.

Mr Good : I will be quick.

CHAIR: Did you want to make an opening statement as well? We mucked that up.

Mr Good : No, I will not go beyond that. I will just bring up a few key points that I think have been put before you by Howard Jones anyway. He appeared before you in Hay, I think. I will reinforce them in a somewhat different way. The Murray Wetlands Working Group has been a community based group mixed up with scientists, ecologists, farmers and local government. It has operated for 21 years in the delivery of water to wetlands of the mid-reaches of the Murray-Murrumbidgee. The group has had 32,000 megalitres of water allocated to it up until 2008-09, when the New South Wales government either decided that we were doing too good a job or decided that they needed the water or both. They removed that and hence the establishment of what is now the Murray Wetlands company as a charitable organisation to continue that work by donations of water and finances. But I think the important point I want to make is that the delivery of water from our storages to the lower reaches has got a whole lot of problems to be addressed in delivering whether it is 2,700 or 4,000 or 6,000. So there are problems in delivery. But once it is down there community groups such as ours—which have the skills, knowledge, respect of all and a track record of doing it—should be the way by which environmental water is actually spread around the place for whatever reasons: wetlands, fish breeding and bird breeding events, forestry or flooding. Another concern, to our mind, is that while the plan is necessary it must be first and foremost an environmental management plan, because the water component of it has been worked over for years in one way or another—modelled to hell, as we have heard this morning, for one reason or another. It is the environmental bit that seems to cause concern as to how much water we need to extract from the system for environmental requirements in the future. We do not hold to a strong view that it should be 2,750 or 4,000. We hold the view that given the variability in climatic conditions, as we are experiencing now, the amount of water extracted this year or withheld or purchased—whatever way you want to say it—would be quite low. What has been purchased up to date, which is about 2,000 gigalitres or thereabouts purchased by the Commonwealth and the state, is sitting there not being utilised or being little utilised in terms of environmental benefit at this present time.

Why? As far as we are concerned—and, personally, as far as I am concerned because I have been involved in it for a long time—there has not been a decision on what are the minimum requirements for particular parts of the ecological arena. How much do we need for wetlands wetting? One thing we have done as a wetlands group is to develop programs, ones that are now completed, that show the commensurate fill levels of 4,000 major wetland areas along the Murray-Murrumbidgee, particularly the Murray area. So we know what levels the water has to be at. We do not exactly know how much it takes to fill all those. And does it really matter whether they are totally filled? In fact, many have had no water for 50 years and we are now putting water back into them by pumping for one reason or another. So the volume is not the important point or it should not be the single point that it has come to be. So it is how we get there, who delivers it and who makes the decisions. At the moment a couple of thousand gigalitres of water is in the kitty, but to me there has not been a clear identification of where it is to go, when and under what circumstances and what the triggers are for the release of that water for environmental uses—be it for breeding or otherwise.

CHAIR: You will be pleased to know we have got the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder with us this afternoon.

Mr Good : Well, you might ask the same questions. So, yes, there is a problem of delivery. When I was on the Murrumbidgee River Management Committee, before the authorities came into being, that came up a lot because if you wanted to put 100,000 megalitres of water down the Murrumbidgee for a bird-breeding event in the wetlands over two days—which would be the regime that would be required—it would flood out most of Gundagai, which would not be a very socially acceptable situation! That goes just to the issues of delivery alone of water at a particular time for a particular use, issues that have to be addressed and recognised when you are putting water into the environment, whatever that might be for.

We hear much about adaptation and adaptive management. Who are going to be the adaptors? I think it is groups like the Murray Wetlands Working Group and other community groups along the river that know how the system works and know where the water goes who should be the adaptors—if you want to call them that—or those implementing the adaptive management to get the best use of environmental water whichever way it is delivered.

I was interested in the point in the previous discussion about trees, if I may bring it up. I have just done a major survey of the Snowy catchments over three years. We have found that there is a considerable area of treeless country up there that was once treed before grazing and burning removed the trees. It is actually up in the Australian Alps, which involves Victoria as well. If we were to replant and try to be innovative, as against being adaptive, and if we were to replant the 17,000-odd hectares of catchment up there that once had trees on it and is now treeless, it has been calculated that we would return about $12 million worth of additional water to the system every year through tree capture. So we have heard about tree use and taking them out of system, but up there in the mountains we can actually capture and put additional water into the system. Why? Because the trees actually catch the continuous Hoar frost, the mists and the windblown snow that are often—

CHAIR: Above the snow line or below the snow line?

Mr Good : At the snow line and above—well, in the subalpine, not the alpine. No, not above the tree line but below the tree line, so that is in the subalpine. Anyway, I bring that point up because it is a gain of water if we were to go with that proposal. It is an innovative approach for a very small cost with a large return each year.

Coming back to the Murray Wetlands Working Group, we consider that the system and the plan need to be much more flexible than they are at the moment, flexible in terms of identifying what is required of environmental water and how much—not a set figure, which to our mind is a bit too simplistic because it is based on a whole set of scenarios that should be applied on an annual basis depending on the rainfall events, the weather conditions and increasing climate change if that is the case.

Senator NASH: Thank you, Mr Good. Can I ask you this. I note what you were saying about adaptive management and what you are saying about your being well placed to look at doing that adaptive management. One of the witnesses yesterday was talking about this issue of localism, which is in disideration of the plan now that we have got the guide. There was some comment, and it might have even been referred to from the MDBA originally, that localism might actually create some issues because of the local nature of it, so they might be doing something there that might impact somewhere else downstream. How do you view what you could do in your area in terms of that localism? Is that something that has been discussed? We had not really had that raised with us until yesterday, so there is a bit of concern there that doing things locally seems to be a contradiction of the bigger picture that is being talked about across the basin.

Mr Good : Let me start by saying: where are the skills for an understanding to be able to put in adaptive management? It is at the local level. It is not at the academic level or the other level.

Senator NASH: I agree. That is why I was asking about your perception.

Mr Good : But that does not mean to say it should not be coordinated at a centralised situation with the Murray-Darling authority and with, working under that, the groups that have got the skills and knowledge to do it. That is if they are good community groups that are drawing upon a wide spectrum, not just upon the irrigation industry and not just upon academia or whatever. In the Murray Wetlands Working Group there has always been a mix of academics, wetland ecologists, local government and community representatives and a representative of state agencies. So there is a good discussion of what is required. Everyone puts in their bit and then there is a decision. The important point has been the acceptance of that sort of approach by the rural community. We have now worked on some 700 wetlands—I think that is what the figures is now—where we have carried out adaptive management. We have done that by pumping water into them from our allocation of water so that the wetlands go through the drying and wetting phase even though they might have been blocked off by some bank or drain or whatever; in some cases, by the removal of those old structures that will now provide for inflow through influent streams, instead of being blocked off; or through the management of wetlands on rural lands by the landholders themselves, but under our guidance, such that they can still use those wetlands in a productive way. Wetlands do not have to be fenced off; they can be managed by the use of grazing as part of that wetting and drying phase.

CHAIR: I am sorry, but I am going to have to impose a little discipline. We have phone hook-ups with two other witnesses. They were due two minutes ago. I am sorry. I did not realise that you had a joint opening statement. If you would like to table any other information we would be delighted to receive your evidence.

Mr Good : I have tabled a dossier of projects of the sorts of work that has been done, with the appropriate notations.

CHAIR: I thank you on behalf of the committee for your commitment and efforts to make sure that Mother Earth stays in order. You might give some thought to why they have never bothered to fix that channel between Leeton and Narrandera that leaks so badly.

Mr Good : I have too much knowledge of it so I will not make any comment!

CHAIR: It is a bloody joke.

Senator STERLE: With the greatest of respect, I think we should have a break.

CHAIR: We will have five minutes.

Proceedings suspended from 10.47 to 10.55