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Tuesday, 7 December 2004
Page: 141

Senator LEES (10:07 PM) —The National Water Commission Bill 2004 establishes a new national body, the National Water Commission. The aim of this body is to facilitate and oversee water reform. Finally we are seeing people at government level and at all levels taking water seriously and valuing water properly, as it should be valued. This body has been put in place to ensure that all of us use water wisely. I support the bill as it is one way—perhaps now the only way—to ensure that we have the water that we need now and for the future. We need to ensure that our rivers and ground water systems are healthy and that we do not take more water than the particular system can sustainably provide. A whole raft of issues will be on the COAG table for debate, such as water efficiency and provision of water for domestic purposes, industry and agriculture. All of this will be scrutinised, and hopefully they will get the planning right this time. I will be moving an amendment that deals with opening up the process to ensure that we really do have the information we should have and that the public needs. I believe that, if we ensure that it really is a public and open process, we will get a much better result. I will talk more to that at a later date.

The key functions of the National Water Commission, which will be an independent statutory body, will be to assess the implementation and promotion of the National Water Initiative and to advise on which projects should receive financial assistance from the Commonwealth through the Australian water fund. I see this as the last throw of the dice for many of our river systems, in particular for the Murray-Darling Basin. If we do not get it right, we and in particular future generations will be in serious trouble. By no means is the Murray-Darling Basin the only river system that will be dealt with, but I do want to focus on it for a moment because it really is in serious trouble. I have spent quite an amount of time over the last few years travelling up and down the river, particularly the South Australian section, and it is in serious trouble. The red gums along the river, particularly those in South Australia around Chowilla—at the back of the locks, which are now preventing regular access to water for those trees—at the back of Banrock Station and basically all the way down the river are in serious trouble. They are sick, they are dying or they are dead.

They desperately need a drink. They could have had a drink in 2000. The decision was made then not to do that but to actually drop the levels of the locks so that the water flowed straight through. I still have not got a commitment from the government that, when we finally do get some rain, rather than dropping the weir and lock levels and pushing the water through we will have the locks raised. They have been upgraded to make sure that it can be done. We will have small floods produced to push the water out into the red gums.

A recent study shows that, just in the last 18 months, tree decline has increased substantially, from 51 per cent of all trees counted in 2002 being in trouble to 75.4 per cent of all trees counted in 2004. In places like Chowilla it is just a graveyard. I used a photo of one of the old trees there on my Christmas card about three years ago, and that tree has gone. This decline was found by researchers to be a `universally severe phenomenon' across hundreds of kilometres of the flood plain. There really is no time left. We have to get water out to those trees in the next 15 to 18 months.

I also notice that there are algal blooms in the Darling already, and we are only just getting into summer. With the impact of the fires on the catchment areas and the reduced run-off that is expected this year, not to mention climate change itself, which is playing havoc with rainfall right across that part of the basin, we now do not have any other chance. If we do not get this right now, if this new body does not work with the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, with COAG and with all other authorities in all states—and it is unfortunate that Western Australia and Tasmania are not full partners to this—then I think that right across the basin we will have an economic disaster as well as an environmental one. We are already seeing that 500 gigalitres simply will not be enough, looking at the additional water use that has occurred just over the three years as more sleeper and dozer licences are woken across the basin. But at least if we can get that in place fairly quickly we can get some of the flooding that we need.

The primary objective of the National Water Initiative is to achieve sustainable use of water across Australia. The plan is to claw back any overallocated water and to ensure ecologically sustainable levels of extraction in all river systems, to put in place an open water accounting system that allows us to see what is happening to water and to acknowledge that landscapes require water to flourish. I want to talk about this accounting system for a moment because this is one of the issues that will make or break this whole process. In South Australia a few years back now the Loxton irrigation scheme was upgraded. There were promises about leaving water in rivers and promises, particularly to the locals, that what was saved would be allowed to flow in the Murray. Very soon we found that the state government had made the decision that that water could go out into the Barossa Valley, and it was piped out there. I commend those in the Barossa who operate the bill scheme for having now made the decision that they will go and source water on the open market rather than use that Loxton water. The priority in South Australia for many years has been to make money by selling water. It is one of the reasons that we have not had water restrictions in Adelaide as long as many other states have had water restrictions, particularly other capital cities. The South Australian government still requires SA Water to put several hundred million dollars a year into the public coffers to help with the budget bottom line. It makes it very difficult to honestly and openly put in place water-saving initiatives.

In talking with farmers up and down the river, I have heard that they want to see this work. Indeed, some of them say that they are prepared to sell a percentage of their water if they can see a public process, if they can be guaranteed that this water is not going to be on-sold and that it will be left in the river. One of the suggestions has been that we use the Net. We have got that facility to track where the water comes from, where it is stored and then, when it is used to top up a flood, that too is accounted for, so we can track exactly where water has been used for the environment. It is one of the reasons I will be moving my amendments, so that we can get a process that farmers really do want to be a part of and that people have real confidence in.

Looking at this new body we are setting up with this bill, the National Water Commission, I see it does not really have any teeth. It is basically there only to assess, promote, advise and look at the funding of the National Water Initiative. The Murray-Darling Basin Commission also lacks teeth. So some of the questions we can put to the minister when we get into the committee stages of this bill relate to where the teeth are and how we are going to see that the decisions that have been made are actually enforced and the results are on the board. How do we make sure that water savings that are made through measures—some of which are already on the drawing board, such as piping the Darling Anabranch and Water Proofing Adelaide through recycling water and stormwater—will actually stay in the river? Again, we come back to an open accounting process or system.

There are some very good stories on recycling stormwater in Adelaide. Michell, the wool producers, used to use nine per cent of Adelaide's water every day but, thanks to the Salisbury Council and their stormwater recycling program, Michell is basically totally off River Murray water. There is only a very end-of-stage process in one of their wool processing lines that uses any Murray water at all; the rest is all recycled stormwater. When they have got too much stormwater, they pump it into the underground aquifer for storage. It is the type of program that can make a difference. But if we are going to have SA Water, if any savings are made in Adelaide, going out and trying to resell or on sell that percentage of water that is saved, this is all going to be defeated and we are not going to get anywhere.

It is public accountability that will make or break this process. Through it we can see whether water savings have been made, where they can be made, where they will be made or should be made and where this saved water has gone. I think great pressure will be put on the Commonwealth to ensure all of this is an open and public process, as the public is now ready for water reform and certainly the farmers I have spoken to throughout the Murray-Darling Basin are ready for it.