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Wednesday, 24 August 1983
Page: 151


Mr CONNOLLY(11.19) —It is a pleasure to be leading for the Opposition on the River Murray Waters Amendment Bill which is the result of a number of years of very complex negotiations conducted between the previous Fraser Government and the governments of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia with the object of bringing the 1914 River Murray Waters Agreement up to date with the realities of the problems facing the river, the people living on its banks and the region as a whole. The most important provision in the redrawn Agreement is the extension of the responsibilities of the River Murray Commission, which were established by the former Agreement with respect to water quality matters in particular.

The earlier agreement of 1914 was based principally on the responsibility for water flows through the river-and not water quality. These amendments, therefore , are specifically related to the question of water quality as well as quantity. The significance of this rests on the fact that in the River Murray region people have become very conscious of the fact that with higher levels of salinity and turbidity the future of the river system is under some doubt.

It was for that reason that the Fraser Government established the Maunsell investigation with the full agreement of the State governments. In September 1979 the Maunsell report on Murray Valley Salinity and Drainage was tabled in this House. For the benefit of honourable members I wish to draw their attention to some of the key recommendations in that report. It emphasised that the study was based on the major objective of developing a co-ordinated plan of action for the entire region, recognising that the main irrigation problems are high water tables, land salination in the riverine plains and high salinities in the Mallee zone. In tackling these problems on a number of broad fronts the report recommended a plan of action which provided for, firstly, works to intercept saline drainage and ground water flows; secondly, drainage works to reduce waterlogging and high water tables; thirdly, on-farm measures to improve irrigation practices and mitigate the effects of waterlogging and river salinity ; and, fourthly, river regulation. These measures were to be supported by a range of program for monitoring and investigation and research contained in the report.

The plan of action includes measures for implementation over a 25-year period at an estimated total cost of $123m and on indicative program over the next five years costing $75m. Of this program, projects totalling $35m were classified as being of first priority. The Maunsell report emphasised that the basic problems of the Murray Valley were clearly identified in an earlier major study of 1970 and still require immediate attention. It emphasised furthermore that delays in implementing improvement works in the intervening years had led to further deterioration in some areas which, although not alarming, nevertheless was regarded by the investigators as being of some concern.

The investigation, as I noted, followed the meeting of Commonwealth and State Ministers back in 1977. On that occasion the Ministers emphasised the need for more co-ordinated action in relation to the problems of the River Murray system. The Maunsell report noted that the interception and drainage priorities should be established on a valley-wide basis and that the problems-namely, high water tables, land salination and river salinity-needed to be emphasised. The review proposals to overcome these problems encouraged the determination of project priorities as well as a long term co-ordinated plan of action.

The main irrigation problem in the Murray Valley, put quite simply, is that high water tables and land salinity in the riverine plains have been increasing over the years. This is demonstrated by high river salinities, especially in the Mallee zone. The high water tables effectively affect plant growth and agricultural productivity. Where this has taken place the impact it has had on the farmers, the quality of their land and, above all, the productivity of the soil is quite obvious. Where ground water is heavily saline in areas such as Kerang and Wakool the problem is worse. The levels of salinity in the Murray system have over the years tended to vary between about 1.4 million tonnes per annum and over four million tonnes per annum, depending, among other things, on the quantity of the water passing down the river at any specific time. The high river salinities affect not only irrigators, their productivity of their land, the turn-off of their herds and the yield of their crops, but also those who depend on the river water for municipal and industrial purposes, especially in metropolitan Adelaide and the towns within the Iron Triangle of South Australia. The ecology of the Murray region has also been adversely affected by salinity. This has affected much of the natural red gum forests. The flow of the river, now largely man controlled, has seriously impaired the growing cycle of the Barmah Forest areas and the future of the wet lands along the river which are the traditional breeding grounds for numerous bird varieties, including the ibis rookeries. Therefore, the implications for Australia are very serious indeed.

That is why this River Murray Waters Bill is so important. It demonstrates, and hopefully not too late, that agreement between the Commonwealth and the States may result in significant steps being taken to enable the River Murray Commission, which comprises the three States and the Commonwealth, acting as equal partners, having the capacity to influence to a greater degree than in the past the future viability of the river system. We must remember that the Murray- Darling system is in fact Australia's major river system. It covers one-seventh of the entire land mass. The water resources of the Murray are virtually fully committed at present, and certainly more so than any other river in Australia. In fact it is currently estimated that 91 per cent of the Murray water is fully committed. The basin accounts for 46 per cent of Australia's agricultural production, 15 per cent of its wood products and 6 per cent of its minerals. In fact half the value of Australia's primary production sold overseas is contributed by farmers in the River Murray region. Furthermore it is estimated that the resources in the Murray-Darling basin support directly and indirectly some 2 million people, with the total value of primary and secondary production estimated at over $7,000m a year.

South Australia is particularly dependent upon the Murray. Some 49 per cent of its water, on average, for domestic and industrial purposes comes from that source. Adelaide alone receives between 20 and 80 per cent of its water supply from the Murray, depending, of course, on climatic conditions. The Murray is the most important waterway in Australia and great demands are being placed on the soil and the water of the basin. Land and water use tends to conflict and land degradation and water pollution are common national problems.

However, since the Murray-Darling basin covers four States, self-interest and parochialism have tended to be problems in this area since well before Federation. To help overcome that, recently a group of my colleagues and I established in this Parliament the River Murray Committee and brought into a relationship with it the Opposition spokesmen for the States of New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria representing both water and environmental matters. A few weeks ago this Committee conducted a major investigation into the river travelling from Albury down to Adelaide. We investigated step by step the problems which were brought to our attention by organisations and interest groups along the river. What impressed us most was that, while there may be variations from place to place in the suggestions put forward to solve some of the regional problems, there is a very deep seated concern for the long term viability of the Murray system.

I was impressed by the deep affection for the river which we found in the people who saw year by year a gradual deterioration in its capacity; changes in lifestyle which have resulted because of this and, of course, the fundamental changes in the ecological structure of the region as a whole. This is seen in the diminished fish population generally while on the other hand, until fairly recently at least, there has been a substantial increase in the number of European carp found in parts of the river. They, in turn, have had a major impact on the turbidity of the river as well as its quality. This has become a serious problem for a number of towns along or near the river, such as Deniliquin, where we were told of the major effects on tourism because of the poor quality of the water.

The River Murray Commission officer who travelled with us emphasised that in recent years, possibly because of the drought there may have been a reduction in the effect of the European carp. But one thing is quite clear: We have to improve the quality of the river to the stage where once again Australian fish species will be able to travel freely in the river and to breed in it.

The main irrigation problems in the Murray Valley are, as I have noted, the high water tables and land salination in the riverine plains and the high river salinities in the Murray region. High water tables adversely affect plant growth and agricultural productivity where the ground waters tend to be very saline. High river salinities affect not only agricultural producers but also the waters used for irrigation and those who have to live along the entire course of the river. In the Kerang region, for example, two-thirds of the area is underlain by a highly saline water table within two metres of the surface. People tend to forget that many thousands of years ago this region was part of a massive inland sea. When the ground rose and the sea was cut off from the ocean the effect was that the salt remained. Now, because of the rising water table brought on principally by the distribution of substantial quantities of water through irrigation, we have seen the rise of the water table, in some areas such as Kerang. The table has probably stabilised. With the implementation of a number of new techniques such as laser beam levelling there are indications which would suggest that in the Kerang area at least there is a stabilisation of land degradation. We hope to see a further improvement in this area.

The Barr Creek and its tributaries represent the main drainage outlet for the Kerang region. That creek alone adds about 150,000 tonnes of salt a year to the Murray. In fact, this is the largest source of salt entering the river system. It represents about 13 per cent of the salt load flowing into South Australia. The Shepparton region currently is also underlain by high water tables but it is not known accurately at this stage what proportion of the total region has been affected. However, without effective drainage works there is little doubt that this could increase threefold by the year 2000, according to the Maunsell report .

It is a matter of great concern that the previous Government's bicentennial water program was one of the first casualties of the Hawke Government. Whilst I was pleased to note in the Budget tabled in this House last night that there was an increase in funding for the national water program, but only $1m was allocated for soil erosion. It is a matter of great concern to my colleagues, expecially those with electorates along the river, that a number of major projects, which were specifically noted in the bicentennial program, have not been funded. Therefore, there is every reason to suggest that at least another decade will be lost-10 years which we cannot afford-before we attack some of these fundamental problems.

I refer specifically to the stage I piping of stock and domestic water through the Mallee; to the establishment of two water purification plants on the Murray which would have improved significantly the quality of the water going to the people of Adelaide and to the Iron Triangle and, of course, further storage in the upper reaches of the river. On this third point there are ecology problems which must be recognised and faced but there is no question that the problems of the other two areas which I have noted, especially the Mallee and the water quality for Adelaide, cannot wait another 10 years to be solved. The other major issue worth noting, of course, is the fundamental problem of information deficiency. We regarded this as being an issue which ultimately has to be solved by the Commonwealth and State departments working much closer than they have in the past.

For the benefit of the Parliament, I would now like to read into Hansard the 10 -point program which the representatives of this Parliament on the River Murray Committee, with the support of our colleagues from the State parliaments of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia have developed and which we are recommending to our respective party organisations, as the basis for a long term 25-year development program for the entire River Murray system. First, we believe that the River Murray Commission should, in association with the State and local authorities, prepare a draft management plan for the River Murray. This draft plan should be considered by a ministerial council comprising representatives from the Federal and State governments, all of which were signatories to the River Murray Waters Agreement. The River Murray Commission should co-ordinate with the State authorities on the implementation of an agreed management plan in five-year stages over a total planning period of 25 years in accordance with the recommendations of the Maunsell report. Discussions with Queensland on water resources in relation to the Darling's tributaries are also recommended. This is a matter which, I should add, is of considerable importance for the future.

Second, a co-ordinated national soil conservation program, also over 25 years, should be developed, in consultation with the States, to meet the identified reclamation, waterlogging and salinity problems found in the dry and irrigated areas of the basin. Third, programs which affect the River Murray should not be initiated prior to full consultation between the States and the River Murray Commission. For example, water and soil conservation programs which may affect the River Murray and its tributaries should, as far as possible, be uniform in their objectives and application.

Fourth, we are dismayed at the Hawke Government's failure to support the bicentennial water resources program and, on regaining office, we shall review these programs to ensure that the water quality and quantity problems of the river system will be satisfactorily overcome. Fifth, we recognise that improved water quality and quantity may require the construction of additional water storages in the Murray-Darling system, the diverting of saline water out of the valley, and the upgrading of the Menindee Lakes storage system. In the meantime, in accordance with the Maunsell report recommendations we agree that government financial assistance should be directed at encouraging the individual farmer to improve irrigation management efficiency. Measures at this level are seen as complementing publicly funded major engineering works and may in some cases be a substitute for them.

Sixth, the ecological welfare of the River Murray must be protected. Accordingly, the River Murray Commission should ensure that sufficient water is provided to maintain the unique red gum forests, native fisheries, and ibis and other bird rookeries. Seventh, major tree planting and regeneration should be integrated into desalination and soil conservation programs for the River Murray and its tributaries, and local government and farmers must be encouraged to plant appropriate species.

Eighth, we recognise the damaging effects of nutrient flow into the river and recommend off-river municipal sewage disposal and treatment plants be constructed. Ninth, the River Murray Commission should be responsible for co- ordinating research priorities with regard to the River Murray system. Tenth, the River Murray Commission should conduct an extensive public awareness campaign at the national level with the assistance of State authorities, community groups and schools and organisations such as the Murray Valley League.

We believe that this 10-point program is unique, in that, for the first time in Australia's federal history, it has been possible in opposition to get together representatives of the four Parliaments involved and have their agreement to the principles upon which they will be enunciating policies for the development of this region in the future. We cannot underestimate the fact that 2 million Australians at least are directly associated with the welfare of the River Murray system. Equally, we have to take the long term view that should this area be permitted to deteriorate any further, every Australian will suffer because of the severe impact on our quality of life, in terms of the region specifically, and, equally as important, the impact that it will have on our balance of payments.

We believe that the problems of the region, while they should be seen in terms of a 25-year development program, must also be seen in the context of the specific irrigation communities and regions along the river. For this reason, it is absolutely imperative that State governments and local water user organisations be fully co-ordinated within a national program. It is not satisfactory that one farmer in four, for example, co-operates. All farmers must be encouraged to utilise the resources made available by local, State and Federal governments to implement land programs which are for the long term benefit of the individual farmer and certainly for his colleagues and for the region as a whole. Anyone who inspects this region will be struck by the fact that on one side of the road you can see a farmer who has applied modern techniques of agriculture, has done his best to control salinity and has implemented the program that I noted earlier of laser levelling, while on the other side of the road one sees a semi-desert because the farmers there have failed to apply modern technology and the opportunities available to them.

This opens up the question whether the level of funding which was provided in yesterday's Budget for the national water resources program will in fact be applied to these problems. The traditional arrangement in the past was that the funds were provided through the State governments on a dollar for dollar basis. We were told by many farmers in Victoria in particular that, whilst promises are made on these matters at the parliamentary level, at the point of delivery, when they actually apply for the funds, they usually are told that they have run out. Quite clearly this is not the basis for a long term co-ordinated program. We recommend that a number of farms in a specific region should be identified, as recommended in the Maunsell report, and that funds be allocated on a guaranteed annual basis over a five-year rolling program. So, every five years, a specified number of farmers-whether they be in the Wakool region, the Kerang region, the Mallee or Sunraysia regions or other parts of the River Murray system-will know in advance what their likely financial commitments will be and the likely availability of funds from the Government. They will be able to plan on that basis.

When governments are dealing with farmers who are to a large degree dependent on the vagaries of seasonal fluctuations, as we have seen in the last three very difficult drought years, it is quite clear that any program must take these climatic realities into account and give farmers the prospect of some certainty in terms of the provision of government funded assistance or support measures, through as low interest loans, long term loans et cetera, so that they are given every opportunity to implement new technology and new farming techniques as they become available. There will always, of course, be the odd farmer who, for various reasons, does not wish to change his system of farming. These problems must be faced at the local and regional level. I have seen similar schemes in South East Asia for example, where massive funds from the World Bank or even, on some occasions, from Australia, have been applied, and I have noted with surprise in some cases the effect upon individual farmers-even the recalcitrant ones-if all their neighbours suggest that they have to mend their ways.

There is a tendency, I think, for governments to believe that the only way to overcome these problems is by regulations, controls and other measures of that type. We believe, as noted in our recommendation No. 10, that we have to put tremendous emphasis on education. Not only do we need to make every Australian aware of the national significance of Australia's one and only major water resource but also, within the region itself, the educational program must be directed to the individual farmer through extension programs conducted principally at the State level to ensure that all known help is available, what support facilities can be provided for the farmer and why the farmer should utilise these resources when they are available.

It has been suggested by some State Ministers that the new arrangements which have now been entered into will solve all the problems because they have signed a letter of agreement which is in the process of passing through this Parliament . I regret to suggest that that is not the case. It has been suggested, for example, that we should go down the road followed by the United States and Canada and look for a totally co-ordinated riverine context for policy so that control measures will in fact be vested in the River Murray Commission and, therefore, the States will effectively hand over to the Commission a degree of sovereignty.

On the basis of a study of the United States and Canadian river basin management, I see no reason to believe that course is necessarily the answer to these problems. For a number of reasons the principal one because in New South Wales, for example, over two-thirds of the entire land mass of the State would in terms of land, water use and soil conservation policy, be effectively outside the control of the State Government. I believe that is an impractical suggestion and it would certainly not be entertained by any party in power in New South Wales; and I think a similar attitude would be taken by the Parliaments of South Australia and Victoria. If that is accepted one has to face the reality that the co-ordination of policy at the Federal level, through the River Murray Commission utilising the resources and, hopefully, the support of the States is really the only way in which we will be able to solve these problems.

At present, through both specific purpose grants, as well as the general purpose financing arrangements between the Commonwealth and the States, there are a number of programs such as soil conservation and water control measures which are part funded, controlled and implemented at the State level. We believe that the States must be fully involved in the application of and decision-making process on policy. We also believe that the authorities responsible for implementing these programs will also be at the State level.

However the question which must be examined is whether it will be in the interests of the River Murray for the States, parties to the agreement, to specify the regional areas which will be covered by the Agreement and whether the Commonwealth could, through section 96 grants, give funds in the first instance to the River Murray Commission for application with the support and co- ordination of State authorities within the region. The introduction of this financial measure will be necessary to ensure a reduction in the salinity levels within the Murray River system by the introduction of farming techniques and other major measure in the fastest possible manner.

This could overcome a problem that we have seen in the past where the Commonwealth has part funded programs on a dollar for dollar basis such as soil conservation in, for example, Victoria and New South Wales, but there has been no evidence that the same priority was given to the level of funding on both banks of the Murray nor in a reasonably co-ordinated manner. Because of that there is quite clearly a fundamental problem, especially for South Australia, where turbidity and quantity problems are manifest. These fundamental problems will not be solved unless they are tackled on a truly co-ordinated basis. It is not important whether the job is being done, for example, by the New South Wales Department of Agriculture or the Victorian Department of Agriculture. What is relevant is that they are both applying the same principles with the objective of achieving the same level of results in a specified period.

It is for that reason that we suggest in our 10-point program that, in the context of 25 years when the program should be in operation, five-year periods should be set aside for a specific range of priority programs. For example, the fact that some five towns along the Murray are still putting their sewage into the river is obviously a thoroughly unsatisfactory situation. However, in recent years some of those towns have implemented new sewerage programs costing them many millions of dollars. Obviously to assist them to rebuild off-river schemes will clearly be a matter for State and Federal intervention, full co-operation and, of course, funding. Programs of that type, if applied on a co-ordinated basis, will be able to help solve the problems of the River Murray system. I am optimistic that there is a very deep concern by the vast majority of farmers and certainly reflected by all the Federal members who have electorates along the river who fully co-operated in our policy recommendation to make sure that Australia's major water resource will not be permitted to become any worse than it has in recent years.

A lot is said in the Press about the River Murray which is inaccurate. Contrary to such reports, the river is not dead, but the river may die if we do not implement the right co-ordinated policies. In various areas, such as the Kerang area, we saw significant improvements. We can argue that the improvements have not been fast enough or general enough but one thing is clear. We will be able to solve these problems if the Commonwealth and the States are prepared to show a closer degree of concern and co-ordination towards the long term solutions than we have seen in the past.


Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Les Johnson) —Order! The honourable gentleman's time has expired.

Debate (on motion by Mr Jacobi) adjourned.