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Record low water inflows into Murray-Darling -

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Record low water inflows into Murray-Darling Basin

The World Today - Wednesday, 8 April , 2009 12:54:00

Reporter: Jennifer Macey

ELEANOR HALL: Now to the latest grim figures on the Murray-Darling Basin.

The amount of water flowing into the Basin in the past three months has been the lowest in more
than 100 years.

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority says the next three months are also looking bleak with drier
than average conditions forecast.

Jennifer Macey has our report.

JENNIFER MACEY: Each month, each season, the drought affecting the Murray-Darling River System
break yet another record and the latest drought update published by the Murray-Darling Basin
Authority for April is no different; with two records broken.

The first three months of this year have recorded the lowest inflows in 117 years and the water
flowing into the system for the past three years has dropped by half since the last bad drought 60
years ago.

The Authority's chief executive Rob Freeman says records are normally broken by small amounts but
this one is startling.

ROB FREEMAN: The inflows for this three-year period are less than 50 per cent of the inflows of the
previous minimum, so it is an extreme new record. It is coming on the back of seven incredibly dry
years so we have got soil profiles which are incredibly dry.

What we have got here is a coalition of climate change, climate variability or drought as people
often call it, and a legacy of over allocation of water from previous governments. And certainly
that wouldn't have been to the extent it is back in 1943/46.

JENNIFER MACEY: The Basin is home to more than two-million people and drinking water has been
secured until next year.

But Mr Freeman says this may not always be the case.

He says autumn and winter are also looking bleak with drier than average conditions forecast. This
means irrigators will only see an increase in their water allocations if it rains.

ROB FREEMAN: What we are seeing is that at the start of the water year, allocations are normally
low and then as we get rainfall over winter they step up. What I am saying is that I think the
likelihood of an early allocation, unless we get good rains in Autumn, will start at either zero or
a very small number of the percentage of allocation.

JENNIFER MACEY: The New South Wales Irrigators Council's chief executive Andrew Gregson says many
farmers are already reconsidering their future.

He is now calling on governments to tailor drought assistance to spare other irrigators from losing
their livelihoods.

ANDREW GREGSON: Irrigators pay a two parts charge. They pay a variable charge to the government and
to state water for the provision of the water that they get through their pumps; but they also pay
a fixed charge to have the pump there in the first instance.

So whether they actually are able to access water or not, they have to still pay that fixed charge
and in some circumstances, that can be upwards of $100,000.

We are not saying that the charge shouldn't be levied. What we are asking of government is that
they recognise that this is a major expense for irrigators and that some assistance in the means of
drought support should be given to irrigators to pay those fixed charges.

JENNIFER MACEY: Yet others say farming communities along the Murray-Darling Basin should stop
clinging to past hopes that a big rain will see them through this current drought.

Dr John Williams, the New South Wales Resources Commissioner is a member of the Wentworth Group of
Concerned Scientists.

JOHN WILLIAMS: We have at the moment, something like $12.7-billion assigned to address the issue
and that is a huge amount of money and some of it that Nick Xenophon has brought forward in the
purchase of water - but also he brought $200-million in to try and assist in regional planning and
regional development of communities, to me all makes sense.

Rarely have we had such a nation building opportunity for recalibrating our regional communities to
try and live with less water - something like 60 per cent of what we currently extract. We are
going to have to go into a structural adjustment process that is, I think, built around communities
determining their future where some will leave the industry.

Other industries will be built but it needs really government assistance in actually building the
futures for our regional communities and not letting it just happen without any real assistance to
determine futures with less water.

JENNIFER MACEY: But green groups say the Government shouldn't wait for big plans to be drawn up
before buying back water for environmental flows.

Dr Arlene Buchan is the healthy rivers campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation.

ARLENE BUCHAN: Delay after delay after delay in government actions to fix the problem is
contributing towards the severity of the environmental catastrophe which has happened across the
Murray-Darling Basin.

There is lots of money now available to fix the problem. We have the policy setting and the policy
tools to fix the problem; and the Commonwealth Government has to roll out its money quickly and buy
water back for the environment and start the process of repair across the Murray-Darling Basin.

There is no more time to waste.

ELEANOR HALL: Dr Arlene Buchan from the Australian Conservation Foundation ending that report by
Jennifer Macey.