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Thursday, 12 August 2004
Page: 26353

Senator RIDGEWAY (3:40 PM) —I present the report of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee entitled Rural water resource usage, together with the Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee.

Ordered that the report be printed.

Senator RIDGEWAY —I seek leave to move a motion in relation to the report.

Leave granted.

Senator RIDGEWAY —I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I am pleased to present the report of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee entitled Rural water resource usage,together with the Hansard record of proceedings. In considering the issues surrounding use of water in rural areas, the committee sought to bring together and assess a diverse range of interested parties and information on rural water and management, and to take into account the recent intergovernmental agreement on a national water initiative. On behalf of the committee I thank those people who shared their valuable expertise with the committee during its deliberations on this issue. Complex issues relating to water access entitlements and water trading were examined by the committee and the report reflects the committee's findings on these matters.

As everyone would know, over the last two decades there has been a growing awareness of environmental problems such as salinity and river health. A need for a national approach to solutions saw the development of the 1984 water reform framework and, subsequently, the Murray-Darling Basin agreement, the Living Murray initiative and the national water initiative. The committee has recognised in this report that the intergovernmental agreement on the national water initiative is a reaffirmation of the political commitment to water reform. We hope to see this political commitment continue and to translate into real long-term gains on sustainable use of water in rural areas.

The committee considered at length the need to give users more secure rights to water, and the complex problems associated with the separation of water rights from land. The committee holds that the intergovernmental agreement has resolved some of the contentious issues in water management—for example, the definition of entitlements as a perpetual share of the consumptive pool, and the issue of who should rightly bear the costs of water allocation and reallocation. We welcome the establishment of a national water commission to provide advice to COAG on water issues. I am left with no doubt that increasing competition for scarce water resources within catchment areas will mean that the national water commission will have a broad and challenging job in achieving sustainable management of water resources.

The committee's report draws attention to the importance of coordinating regional water sharing plans over the broadest area of a catchment and the need to retain a close watch on the operation and behaviour of a water market in order to satisfy the need for national consistent regulation of trade. The committee recommends that the Council of Australian Governments must move forward in developing a policy on rules to control the water market. The committee also asks that loopholes which may result in profiteering or speculation by non-users, including foreign interests to the detriment of local water users or the environment, be closely scrutinised and appropriately policed.

Through the course of the hearings it became evident that water in rural areas, especially in light of more intensive and widespread agricultural development, is a more and more precious resource. Governing and regulation of the use of the resource, however, appear to have fallen behind development requiring large-scale irrigation, as is evident in examples such as the practice of bunding in Queensland's portion of the Murray-Darling Basin.

The committee has recommended that, as a matter of urgency, a cap for water extractions in the Queensland part of the Murray-Darling Basin should be implemented. An appropriate cap would alleviate the severe pressures that are currently placed on this stressed system. I personally welcome today's announcement from Queensland's natural resources minister, Mr Stephen Robertson, who has said that his government intends to implement a water resources plan for the Condamine-Balonne catchment area in the state's south-west. Whether a 10 per cent reduction will mean sustainable use of water in the region and throughout the river system remains to be seen, but I welcome the speedy implementation of this important step in Queensland.

With regard to the national water commission, the committee also suggests that coordinating research to best inform implementation of the intergovernmental agreement should be a responsibility of the national water commission. The committee sees an important need for the national water commission to consult with interested parties within the scientific community on this issue. The committee recognises that, despite the beginnings we have seen, substantial progress is still to be made on this issue through COAG's National Water Initiative by the national water commission within regional catchment management bodies and certainly by the community at large. The committee considered that the most effective way of speeding up such a process must be through the establishment of clear milestones, both temporal and with regard to the physical needs of the environment.

Progress of difficult and controversial issues surrounding use and allocation of water in rural areas will depend on continuing political motivation. It is vital we solve problems surrounding trading over water across state lines, the harmonisation of water pricing and the designation of rules for trading which reflect hydrological realities and ecological needs. Both surface and ground water issues must be taken into account in future planning for rural water resources, as is illustrated in concerns that were aired in the hearings over the effects of Commonwealth licensed oil drilling on the La Trobe aquifer.

It is also important to consider the effect of water-intercepting land uses on catchments and river systems and, more importantly, that all decision making is based on a solid scientific knowledge base. Only with solid information can appropriate decisions be made on the amount of water available to rural communities in order to ensure downstream users and the environment are not compromised or disadvantaged. Finally, it is important to ensure that water is used efficiently at every opportunity. In considering this issue, the committee heard a number of examples of irrigation sectors that have improved their efficiency of water use in recent decades. However, we did note that there is still much potential for improvement. In our investigations into the effects of farm dams on water in a catchment area we were made aware of substantial discrepancies between the policies of the New South Wales and Victorian governments particularly, and we would encourage those governments to ensure a harmonised position is reached in the new future.

I would like to take the opportunity to thank all the people involved in this exercise. The review the committee has undertaken in the course of this parliament I think has highlighted the need for further and substantial work on rural water use. Progress towards sustainable management of water resources is of vital importance for the health of rural communities, for Australia's primary industries as a whole and certainly for the Australian environment as well. I thank Ms Maureen Weeks, the secretary of the committee, and the staff of the secretariat. It has not been an easy process getting to this point but I think the results have paid off after the many hearings that were held across the country and certainly in the production of the report. It is one that I hope the government will take up. There are some key recommendations that ought to be adopted. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.