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Thursday, 19 June 2003
Page: 11990

Senator LEES (1:15 PM) —I would like to say at the outset that the Murray-Darling Basin Amendment Bill 2002 is a very important piece of legislation. It amends the Murray-Darling Basin Act 1993 and represents an agreement between the various states and the Commonwealth—and between the states themselves—as well as implementing the corporatisation of the Snowy Hydro.

Very importantly, the bill establishes a process to recover environment flows, in this case mainly for the Snowy River. It will return to the Snowy River some 28 per cent of its natural flow over a 10-year period at an estimated cost of around $300 million. The two states have again cooperated, with that cost to be shared between the two state governments. It also establishes additional mechanisms for water accounting and notification as well as for consultation and modelling with respect to the Murray-Darling Basin Commission.

There are a number of conditions. Firstly, allocations of water to the environment must not adversely impact on irrigators. Secondly, allocations must not adversely impact on South Australia, which I am very pleased to note. Thirdly, the commercial viability of the Snowy scheme will be maintained. Fourthly, water for environment flows will be sourced principally from verified water savings. Lastly, water for environment flows cannot be consumed—it must flow through the river system to the sea.

While this bill is about returning flows mainly to the Snowy River, it is also about returning some flows to the River Murray. It addresses the environmental degradation—that is, the long-term consequences of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme and all the irrigation associated with it. The scheme was built at a time when, I believe, we did not have an adequate understanding of the environment into which we were putting these very large volumes of water. While it was mainly intended for industrial purposes—for use as hydro power—the impact of the changes to the water regimes and the use of water has been very significant.

This bill is of particular significance because it sets out a model of how to achieve environment flows over a long period. It gives rise to the development of a strategy to recover environment flows for the River Murray—beginning with 70 gigalitres and hopefully moving to at least the 1,500 gigalitres that need to be left in the river at the point where the Murray River joins the Darling River. It indicates that water reform will only proceed if money is injected into the reform process by state and federal governments. This is a very important point because, rather than just millions of dollars, I think we are going to be talking in the billions of dollars. It is estimated that it could be around $1.5 billion just for that first 1,500 gigalitres of environment flows.

I do have a few concerns, which I will list very quickly. Firstly, I am concerned that, as we move to finding this water, governments will be tempted to simply buy water on the market. While there is no problem with doing some of that, clearly it becomes very risky if those also interested in buying water realise that it is in fact the government that it is planning to acquire this water—costs will escalate enormously. Also, as has just been mentioned by Senator O'Brien, it is not just a matter of letting water flow down the rivers—either of them. If we really want to improve the habitats—particularly looking at restoring ecosystems and riverine habitat—we have to look at issues such as the temperature of the water, channel maintenance and flushing flows, particularly for the River Murray, the health of the Coorong and the health of wetlands such as Chowilla.

We need to look at issues right down as far as the eastern Mount Lofty Ranges and at those tributaries which for the first time, in many cases, have stopped flowing this summer. That had very little to do with the drought and more to do with excessive extraction. Up and down the river, we have to look at fish spawning and at specific degraded habitats. I would point to the report recently released on the death of the old red gums and the huge amount of devastation— not 20 per cent, but 60, 70 or 80 per cent in places—particularly in places like Chowilla. It is going to take a lot more than simply finding the environment flows. It is going to be a management process. It is going to mean, in many cases, that when we finally do have rain we will have to try and top up the small floods to get them out over the banks and into those wetlands. It is going to be a long-term process and time is certainly of the essence.

I note that there is very little mention of property rights and compensation. Water reform will stall entirely if these issues are not addressed. There is very little here that addresses how we are going to pay in the longer term for the repair of the landscape. We could look at levies or at a consumer pays system—in other words, substantially increasing the cost of water—but one way or another we are going to have to come to terms with the fact that this is going to be a very expensive operation.

As I said, the history of the Murray-Darling is one of water being extracted for agriculture, building on the back of the water that was stored for the Snowy hydro scheme. It was simply assumed that the rivers would remain healthy with what was left in them. Unfortunately, we now know that there is little, if anything, left. In fact, we cannot even meet entitlements at the moment. But we are still taking more water out. The Clare Valley pipeline is going ahead as we meet today. While it is needed for the small towns in the Clare Valley, we surely should not be allowing additional irrigation to proceed. We should not be opening up new irrigation schemes at a time when we have such enormous stresses on the whole Murray-Darling Basin.

This is not a scheme that is going to be using water that is bought from anywhere else; it is supposedly, according to SA Water, new water, available water—water that is at the moment within SA's entitlement. I argue very strongly that it is not and that South Australia does not have any spare water. Last year and this year are a very good example of that. Not only do we have the problem for the Murray of taking more water out, and taking it right out of the Murray catchment— in other words, there will be no chance of any seepage, leakage or anything coming back into the river—but that entire volume of water will be lost to the Murray.

The problem is also what it is going to do to the Clare Valley. Salinity is already a problem in pockets of the valley—a very significant problem in one area. We are putting into that valley, along this pipeline, quite salinised water, particularly at the moment. It effectively in parts does not have anywhere else to go. So I believe we need to take a fresh look at this pipeline, at the impact on the Murray as well as the impact on the viticulture in the Clare Valley.

When I visited there last week, they were already putting out the initial spacings and measurements for enormous numbers of plantings all along where this pipeline is going to go. Initially, the pipeline was never intended for irrigation, but SA Water is out there selling water, actively encouraging growers, who in some cases are now going to have to go and look for extra plantings to use it. They have even talked to places like Martindale Hall, which is a historic property that has no vines on it at the moment, about putting in vines—`You will have the water. How about you invest in some vines and make some money?' They are even looking at putting in grapevines.

I close by saying that, while we do see some positives in this bill, every time we seem to take a couple of steps forward we have a couple of steps backwards facing us as very bad decisions are made in other parts of the river. While I commend this bill to the Senate, I call on the government to take a closer look and for the Commonwealth to take some far stronger action when it sees states making decisions that will not only harm their own patch—in this case the Clare Valley, I believe, will be significantly harmed by extensive, unpoliced use of this water—but certainly harm the Murray-Darling Basin for everyone.