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Thursday, 15 May 2003
Page: 14784

Mr HATTON (10:58 AM) —I was just saying to the deputy whip that, in speaking to the Murray-Darling Basin Amendment Bill 2002, it is one bill that I hope I do not run dry on. I am a bit bemused and a bit concerned: in listening to the speech of the member for Flinders, I was told that more water would be flowing into the Murray as a result of this agreement. I thought, `I don't really think that's what's going to happen.' Later in the speech we were told that more water would be flowing into the Snowy rather than the Murray.

The central problem with the Murray is that it has had water from the Snowy diverted to it over more than 35 years so that we could run the Snowy hydro scheme. The extra water that has been available in the Murray-Darling Basin has been taken from or stolen from the Snowy. So even though there is a release factor, there will not be a great increase of water into the Murray. In fact, it has now been agreed that 21 per cent of natural flow should be achieved in the Snowy. That is what this bill is attesting to.

Over time, there have been very different approaches taken to this matter. Historically, in the greatest engineering project Australia has ever undertaken, it was determined to divert the full flow of the Murray and to use that water for two purposes, one being to provide electricity through hydro-electricity. As Deputy Speaker Adams would know, only Tasmania equals the Snowy project with respect to not only reliance upon water but also efficient use of water in producing electricity. Across the Tasman, New Zealand is a great example of being heavily dependent on hydro-electricity. For the last two years it has been subject to severe drought and it now has significant problems in providing enough electricity to its people. New Zealand has adopted a range of measures to try to save water so that it can engender that.

It is a bit puzzling and a bit bemusing for the member for Flinders to argue that the Murray is going to be better off in terms of flow, when water that would have gone to the Murray is in fact going to be redirected back to the Snowy. When the initial investigations in regard to this were undertaken, the proposal of Robert Webster—the former National Party minister in New South Wales who headed up the group that looked into natural flows in the Snowy—was that 15 per cent of original flow should be provided, at a cost of about $195 million. Of course, there were other pressures at play in the New South Wales and the Victorian governments—particularly the Victorian government, because of the nature of the election and the fact that there was an Independent strongly pushing for 28 per cent of flow. As in all good politics, we ended up with a compromise. This bill will put about 21 per cent of flow back into the Snowy.

That will have a series of effects for the Snowy itself. It will not ever get back to 100 per cent of flow, but that 21 per cent of natural flow will have an effect on all of the species that are in the Murray. Again, I cannot really work this out, but the member for Flinders indicated that it would have an effect on the `nature' species. I cannot work out whether it would have an effect on the unnatural species—I do not think there are any there—and I would expect and hope that all of those species in the Snowy were natural. Some are native to the area, and others are not. But I think what he was driving at was that, if you look at the manner in which the micro-organisms are available to fish life and to other life within that stream, the changeover time has meant that there has been a decrease in micro-organisms within the Snowy and that the natural fish life that had predated on them had not been able to do as well as it otherwise might. Returning the river to 21 per cent of natural flow will have a series of effects. Those effects will be to increase the diversity of the micro-organisms that are available to be predated upon and therefore will help our native fish species, and that can be assisted in terms of how that 21 per cent is released.

I want to compliment the CSIRO, and also the scientific bodies from New South Wales and Victoria, on the work that they have done in creating the foundations for water management within the Snowy and the Murray-Darling Basin. That is evident in the quite excellent piece of work that was done as a backgrounder on this by the library and in the work that Bill McCormack did. It is one of the best pieces of work that I have read, and the science involved here is extremely strong. They point out that it is not simply a matter of reintroducing water into the Snowy and pumping it out on a regular basis. One might expect that that is what they would be up for. However, what they have taken into account is the fact that, if you actually were to do that and simply have a regular amount of water going back into the river day after day, week after week, there would be an advantage to introduced fish species rather than native fish species. What is proposed here, in terms of the 21 per cent, is to follow a cyclical approach and to look at what seasonal use of water there has historically been in the Snowy and how that can best be added to.

There is an erratic but scientifically based method for pouring water back into the Murray. In the period running through September and October, when there is natural snow melt off the mountains and an increased volume of water running into the Snowy River, water would be released at higher volumes into the river to take account of what happens with the snow melt. Periods of flooding would also be involved. The Snowy, for 35 years or so, has not enjoyed the natural flooding that it used to. Part of this process is to ensure that there is flooding.

One of the things that are evident, based on the experience of the Snowy over those 35 years, is that the river itself has dramatically changed. There is a vastly increased amount of sedimentation. If you look at the river bed, you see that its conformation is completely different because of the rise in sedimentation. The flow lines in the river have been changed as well, so the reintroduction of water has to be in conformity with those changes in trying to bring the river to something like what it was in the first instance. There are always winners and losers. The winners in terms of the environment—

Mr King —Mr Deputy Speaker, I seek to make an intervention.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. D.G.H. Adams)—Order! Will the honourable member take an intervention?

Mr HATTON —Yes, I will take the intervention.

Mr King —I would be interested to know from the honourable member, having regard to his description, whether he has actually been there and seen the sedimentation and the other things he has just described.

Mr HATTON —In reply to the member for Wentworth, the answer is no. I have not been there, but what I have been able to do is read—as I have just indicated—the background material from the library. It is well written, it is graphic and I imagine that reading it is the second-best thing to being there. I have not seen that sedimentation, but the picture presented is full enough and graphic enough for me to get some idea of it.

Because of the changes that have happened over time, trying to put the river back to some semblance of what it was is extremely important. The winners and losers we find here indicate a fundamental part of the problem we have not just with the Snowy but with the Murray-Darling Basin all up. The questions of water rights and how those water rights are allocated are much more complex than the simple question of the river itself having water taken from it to be used in other ways because we as a species have intervened. We have intervened for good purposes, to provide not only electricity but also a greater flow of water for use in the Murray-Darling Basin, which provides an enormous percentage of Australia's natural product.

Taking away water from the Murray-Darling Basin has an effect on existing users, but there is a bigger picture as well. South Australians of both stamps have violently reacted to the idea. Both Liberal and Labor governments have put forward very strong arguments in this process. Five state governments are involved in the Murray-Darling, with two key governments being those of Victoria and New South Wales—because they have the largest use and the largest farming activity associated with use of the water from there—and the South Australians being right at the end of the system. They are utterly dependent on the flow through the Murray-Darling system, and we have already seen significant problems in terms of sedimentation and build-up and the closing of the Murray.

It was my happy duty to be part of a task force of our caucus rural and regional development committee—under the leadership of you, Mr Deputy Speaker Adams—which recently spent two days in South Australia. We did not go to the mouth of the Murray, but the Leader of the Opposition went to the mouth of the Murray and saw for himself the problems with sedimentation and closure. He and our shadow minister for the environment, Kelvin Thomson, the member for Wills, have pledged that Labor will save the Murray, that Labor will commit itself to putting back into the Murray-Darling system 450 gigalitres of water to ensure not just environmental flows but environmental flows which are directed towards ensuring the lifeblood of southern South Australia and the lifeblood of South Australia's productive regions.

The complexity of the situation was well addressed in the briefings we had from the CSIRO, covering questions such as land use, water rights and the changes that there have been in water use patterns over time. This is particularly so in the lower reaches of the Murray, where the South Australian wine producers in the Speaker's electorate of Wakefield have been increasingly effective in being able to use water more sparingly in the whole of the South Australian region and to push, because of the impress of a lack of water, to be a lot more efficient in the way they use that precious resource. It has not meant that there has been a great deal extra available, just that people have used it more efficiently.

The great problem we have—this doubled-headed problem, almost of Hydra proportions—in the Murray-Darling system is that, as we move to try to address problems with salinity and to achieve a more efficient use of water, we come up against the question of how to allocate water rights. From a historical perspective: there are areas around Deniliquin about which a long-term study was done by the CSIRO, and the CSIRO found that it would have been delinquent of the government to allow an extension of farming into areas dependent on water from the Murray, because of problems with salinity and with the availability of water over time. In the natural course of things, the CSIRO's judgments were put aside. The then government went ahead, those areas were opened up and they became dependent upon water from the Murray. There was an efflorescence of farming activity, but that has now hit significantly hard times because they are under pressure from a lack of useful and available water. There is a situation in which people have existing rights to water, and that will need to be sorted out, in sorting out the whole question of what happens in the Murray-Darling.

There are problems right at the top of the system. At the Condamine, there have been arguments in terms of the rice farmers and the people producing cotton—that their use of water is inefficient, that they are depriving people lower down of the utility of that water and that they need to be constrained in what they do.

Again, in a task force visit by our committee led by the deputy speaker, the member for Lyons, we had a look at the problems up there. We also looked at the solutions that have been suggested for the Lockyer Valley and for the Darling Downs. We know the government has been tardy in responding to the people in the Lockyer Valley. They have joined with the Lord Mayor of Brisbane in saying that one-third of the waste water from Brisbane could be used in the Lockyer Valley to grow Australia's vegetables. That could be used if the Queensland government put in the $200 million that they would have to put in in the short term to build a new treatment facility to have waste water exit into Moreton Bay. That could be used to provide treated waste water to the Lockyer Valley, because they are drought ridden and water deprived. Even with the rights they have, the capacity is not there. The levels of ground water have decreased so much that they are under real pressure.

To make the whole system work properly you need, in the initial assumption, about another $400 million to go 600 metres up a cliff face to get up to the plateau of the Darling Downs. We flew over the Downs, visited properties on the Downs and met with the local farmers. We found that in farm after farm where they had put one or two half-a-million-dollar dams on a property there was virtually no water at all. They have massive problems with existing and available ground water. With those farmers on the Darling Downs who are willing to put their money in with the money that the state government has pledged and that the local council would put up—and the Commonwealth, if it comes to the party—you could have the Darling Downs area revivified. The more efficient use of waste water, which would be useful not only here but Australia-wide, would mean that water could be saved, put back into the Darling at its very top and then flow down to the Murray. The one significant and great problem with that is that as you get into the lower reaches of the Darling, before you get to the Murray, the water spreads—there is a plain where a lot of it is soaked up. The CSIRO have a question about increasing flows into the Condamine and the Darling and whether the water flow would get to the Murray at all and therefore whether it would be useful there and useful in South Australia.

The farmers in the Darling Downs, those on farms running down the Darling and the farmers who are dependent upon the Murray, the Murray-Darling systems and the Murrumbidgee for their livelihoods will be affected by how they use water and by the changed nature of use that is evident in this bill. This is the start of the process, not the finish of it. The major problems that we face need to be addressed. Everyone in Commonwealth government knows how difficult it is to get the state governments to agree on major problems. Everyone with experience would know how difficult it is to get state governments to agree on transport matters and road building, for instance. There is always a question of the desire of governments to cost shift and to argue that one level of government should be doing it rather than others.

When dealing with the questions of water rights, the effect of salinity and how to best use the available waters—in terms of not only providing environmental flows but the chief uses we have as a species to ensure the livelihood of our people and of our industries that are dependent upon water—you cannot walk away from the fact that we do not solve the problems purely by increasing the efficiency of our water use. One of the difficulties is that if you increase the efficiency with which you use water, and you do not then cap that use, you do not return any more water to the system. In fact, it has been proven by the farmers and by CSIRO that increased levels of efficiency, with no mechanism to say you cannot take more water out, can lead to a much more significant problem. Efficiency levels are now up to 65 to 80 per cent, so you have flows of 40 per cent or so going back down into the ground water and then finding their way back into the Murray. If you only get more efficient use of water and allow it all to be used, you will not be getting that 40 per cent flowing back down through the ground water and eventually back into the Murray system.

This bill is the end of a long process in terms of providing 21 per cent of environmental flows to the Snowy, but it is also an indicator of just how far we have to go to deal with the problems of the whole Murray-Darling Basin. The basis of that has to be cooperation between the states and the Commonwealth, but the really hard questions need to be dealt with—not only questions of availability and efficiency but also questions such as the ownership of water and water rights.