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Running on empty

Broadcast: 04/08/2010

Reporter: Paul Lockyer

The long-awaited plan for the Murray Darling Basin has many irrigators fearing for their future.
They're concerned that they face massive cuts in their water allocations to get the rivers flowing.
But at the mouth of the Murray, the plan is seen as the only way to fix the ailing river system.

Transcript

KERRY O'BRIEN, PRESENTER: This election has prompted promises from both sides for new community
water-saving programs, but the biggest water issue of all won't be addressed until a new government
takes office. It's the much-anticipated water-sharing plan for the Murray-Darling Basin,
Australia's most productive food bowl. Scientists and community representatives have been working
on the plan ever since a new federal water act was passed in 2007 and irrigators are convinced it
will impose huge cuts on them for the sake of the environment. A community discussion paper was
supposed to be released about now, but the Murray-Darling Basin Authority shelved it until after
the election, deciding it was inappropriate to release it while Canberra was under caretaker rule.
Irrigators are fuming, as Paul Lockyer reports.

PAUL LOCKYER, REPORTER: Recent rain has set some streams flowing, to begin replenishing water
storages in the Murray-Darling Basin after long years of drought.

This is Burrinjuck Dam, north-west of Canberra. From here, the Murrumbidgee River meanders its way
across the Riverina region of NSW, to one of Australia's oldest irrigation districts, the
Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area around Griffith. The MIA will soon mark its centenary, but many
farmers now fear that they won't have the water to go on, that it'll be taken away and given to the
environment, under a new water-sharing plan.

JOHN BISETTO, IRRIGATOR: I mean, where do we stand? We don't know where our future is. Let's know
exactly where we're going; at least we can plan.

STEWART ELLIS, CHAIRMAN, NATIONAL IRRIGATORS' COUNCIL: So the simple solution is take water off
irrigators and run it down the river.

GILLIAN KERKUP, MURRUMBIDGEE IRRIGATION: It's just putting incredible angst on everybody.

IRRIGATOR: The Government's went out and spent all this money. They haven't even released the plan
yet - their business plan of what they're gonna do with the water.

PAUL LOCKYER: The sentiments being expressed on a vineyard near Griffith reflect the mood in
irrigation communities right across the Murray-Darling Basin. The delay in the release of the
water-sharing plan until after the election has only added to the uncertainty and the anger.

Gillian Kerkup is a chairman of Murrumbidgee Irrigation.

GILLIAN KERKUP: It's coming to the heart of what they do. It's affecting the whole fabric of who
they are and their families.

JOHN BISETTO: The uncertainty is probably the thing that's weighed me down the most. I always think
all these people that have had breakdowns, how could it happen, but I understand how it can happen
because you get to a point emotionally where it just keeps working on you.

STEWART ELLIS: It's just adding insult to pain at the moment is the fact that it's being delayed.
We don't know when it's gonna come out.

PAUL LOCKYER: Stewart Ellis chairs the National Irrigators' Council.

STEWART ELLIS: For goodness sake, let's get the figure out there so that we've at least got
something that we can discuss, talk about.

PAUL LOCKYER: But the Murray-Darling Basin Authority insists that convention dictates that it can't
release the water plan while a caretaker government is in place for the election.

Anxiety levels in the irrigation areas had already been raised by the release of this report, a
study conducted by the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists into the future water needs of the
environment in the Murray-Darling Basin. It concluded that there should be cuts to irrigators
everywhere, but that the biggest cuts of all should occur along on the Murray and here on the
Murrumbidgee.

TIM STUBBS, WENTWORTH GROUP OF CONCERNED SCIENTISTS: Those rivers are really where the large
volumes of water are.

PAUL LOCKYER: Environmental engineer Tim Stubbs was one of the architects of the Wentworth report.

TIM STUBBS: I would be very surprised if the basin's planned science is significantly different.

PAUL LOCKYER: And that's what alarms irrigators, because the Wentworth Group has recommended cuts
as high as 65 per cent along the Murrumbidgee.

JOHN BISETTO: It cannot be 65 per cent, just cannot be 65 per cent, because the whole area would
close down and I'm not sure that that's in anybody's interest, including city people or
politicians, to close down such a productive area as this.

TIM STUBBS: I'd be alarmed as well if I was one of them as well. This is a big change. And I think
till now, the scope of the change hasn't really been addressed.

PAUL LOCKYER: Change driven by the environmental degradation that's become evident during the
drought years along most of the rivers that make up the Murray-Darling Basin, especially at the end
of the system in South Australia.

Only sea water now flows through the mouth of the Murray, bringing marine life with it. The opening
would have silted over long ago, but for the constant dredging.

TIM STUBBS: The mouth's an easy icon to look at, but there are a whole lot of other big
environmental assets that are suffering just like the mouth, but it's a little bit more difficult
to see the impacts there.

PAUL LOCKYER: It's been years since the Lower Lakes on the Murray filled and spilled into the sea,
or into the Coorong, the 100 kilometre-long lagoon that runs down from the Murray mouth.

MIKE GEDDES, ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENTIST, UNI. OF ADELAIDE: This has just been sitting here,
evaporating, evaporating, and each year it gets saltier and saltier.

PAUL LOCKYER: Dr Mike Geddes has been monitoring the health of the Coorong since the 1970s. At the
bottom end of the lagoon it now gets up to six times saltier than the sea and the only creatures
that survive here are these tiny brine shrimps.

MIKE GEDDES: Now it's switched over to really be like a salt lake. Where you expect to find these
brine shrimps are in Lake Eyre and Lake Torrens and the very salty lakes throughout Australia.

PAUL LOCKYER: There are plans to pump the hyper-saline water over the sand dunes and out to sea,
but Dr Geddes stresses that only bigger river flows can provide long-term solutions.

MIKE GEDDES: I think the time's right for people to accept a Murray-Darling Basin plan that sees a
smaller percentage of flows going to irrigators and more to the river.

HENRY JONES, FISHERMAN: But the fact is the whole system is on its knees, and unless we can get
water back into the river, then it's all gonna die.

PAUL LOCKYER: Henry Jones has fished the Lower Lakes of the Murray River most of his life,
witnessing the decline of the area. He's now had a big say in its future. He serves on a community
committee that has helped to draft the new water plan for the Murray-Darling Basin.

HENRY JONES: I just pray that the politicians have got the guts to bring it off. It's our only
chance down here, and I think it's just once-in-a-lifetime chance to get the system right again.

PAUL LOCKYER: The Federal Government has $9 billion to spend on orchestrating the change.

TIM STUBBS: Under our analysis, with the $9 billion, we could probably buy all the environmental
water we need back for, say, $5 to $6 billion, and that leaves quite a significant amount of money
to help communities adjust to a future with less water.

PAUL LOCKYER: Meanwhile, irrigators are in limbo, waiting to hear the detail of their fate.

STEWART ELLIS: We know it's gonna be disastrous, but for God's sake, get it out there. Stop playing
with our lives.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Paul Lockyer with that report. One of the side effects of an election.