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Monday, 13 October 2008
Page: 5784

Senator STERLE (4:11 PM) —by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

On Friday, 10 October 2008, the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport tabled its report from the inquiry into water management in the Lower Lakes and Coorong, including consideration of the Emergency Water (Murray-Darling Basin Rescue) Bill 2008. The committee received 84 submissions from state and federal government departments, key organisations and stakeholder groups and individuals. The committee held hearings in Adelaide, on 10 September 2008, and Canberra, on 9, 18, 19 and 26 September 2008. The committee heard evidence from a diverse range of witnesses, including representatives from the relevant federal, Queensland, South Australian and New South Wales departments, farmers’ and irrigators’ groups, the Australian Conservation Foundation, local councils and residents and technical experts.

One fact that was made clear by this inquiry into water management in the Coorong and Lower Lakes is that there are no simple solutions. Regardless of what others may be saying out there in the media, there is no simple solution. The fact remains that there is not enough water in the system and many environmental sites throughout the basin, as well as farmers, irrigators and communities, are suffering from the lack of water. The problem faced in the Coorong and Lower Lakes is a result of the Murray-Darling Basin currently experiencing the worst drought on record, historic overallocations of the water in the system and the emerging impacts of climate change.

As the lakes are freshwater ones, the focus of the inquiry’s first term of reference was to find possible solutions to obtaining additional fresh water for the lakes. The Murray-Darling Basin Commission estimates that a total of 830 gigalitres of water would be required to return the lakes to sea level by June 2009. Thirteen hundred gigalitres would be required to raise the lakes to a level where the fishways could be operated, and an additional flow of 550 gigalitres would be required to operate them for 12 months. A further 730 gigalitres per annum flowing through the barrages would be required to be sure of keeping the mouth of the Murray open to assist with tidal flows into the Coorong. But where does this water come from? And if water is available to allocate, how do you decide who needs it most? Options to find additional fresh water include: purchasing permanent water entitlements; capturing overland flows; acquisition of water on the temporary market; public storage sources such as the Menindee Lakes, Lake Victoria and the Snowy River; and manipulating weir pool levels.

The government has already committed no less than $3.1 billion to the purchasing of water entitlements under its Water for the Future plan and has also announced a tender in the southern and northern basins to purchase entitlements from willing sellers. The committee heard that storage volumes throughout the basin are very, very low and any available water would be required for high-priority needs. In the committee’s view, obtaining any additional water from any public storage source would only be at the cost of adversely impacting those particular sites’ environmental values and ecosystems.

One very esteemed expert, Professor Richard Kingsford, gave evidence that taking water from other public storages was like ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’. All the sites throughout the basin hold their own important environmental values and one cannot be seen as more important than another. Dr Arlene Buchan, of the Australian Conservation Foundation, supported this claim by saying:

The key users across the Murray-Darling Basin are irrigators, dryland farmers, flood plain graziers, the environment, towns and cities… all are legitimate users of that water … There is no room for any of those users to say that the rights of the others should be squashed.

Some of the options presented needed further investigation, but the general consensus was that there is unlikely to be enough water in the system to achieve the flows necessary for a significant increase of fresh water flows into the Lower Lakes.

Flooding the lakes with sea water is an alternative option to increasing the levels of the lakes that the committee inquiry explored. The options for sea water included temporarily admitting a small quantity of sea water to stave off the formation of acid sulphate soils; dividing the lakes in two and admitting sea water in one section; or removing the barrages and returning the lake system to an open estuarine system. In the committee’s opinion the question which needs to be answered in considering this is: would the damage from sea water outweigh acid sulphate soil formation? The general consensus of experts was that sea water was the less damaging option. However, other issues such as the potential impact of the salt on groundwater, the potential concern for the intrusion of salt water upstream and the impact that increased salinity in the lakes would have on the ecosystem were a concern to the committee and needed further investigation.

An option presented to the committee to potentially solve the immediate problem of hypersalinity in the south lagoon was to pump the hypersaline water out of the lagoon into the ocean. This option warrants serious consideration subject to further investigation. Ultimately it was the committee’s view that any addition of sea water would require thorough environmental impact assessment and community consultation.

This report highlights how difficult the situation is across the Murray-Darling Basin, including the Coorong and the Lower Lakes, and cements the fact that there are no simple solutions to this problem. Communities, farmers, irrigators and environmental values are all under enormous pressure. But, as was stated before by Dr Arlene Buchan, all are legitimate users and all have rights to the water. The evidence presented shows that there is not enough water in the system to do the things we want to do. Even if some water were available to be allocated, all of these users want and need water. If there is not enough water to go around, how do you decide who to sacrifice?

On the more positive side, the committee heard that recent rainfall in the Lower Lakes region, combined with increasing seasonal allocations to South Australia, means that the likelihood of reaching the acidification management threshold before winter next year has fallen considerably. Dr Craik, from the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, said:

Under the worst case scenario a relatively small amount of water could be required to avoid acidification before next winter. Given the rainfall and the reduced evaporation, we believe that we only need a relatively small amount of water to get through to next winter. Under anything less than the worst case scenario the lakes are at a low risk of acidification before the next winter inflow period.

This is positive news for the short term but, as included in the six recommendations the committee provided in the report, the need for a management plan to address the long-term threats to the site’s environmental values is of vital importance. I must reiterate: the whole Murray-Darling Basin is in crisis; there is absolutely no mistake about that. I will reiterate one more time: how do you determine who is more important than anyone else on the Murray-Darling system? That is not for us to decide, but we need a long-term solution, and this government will continue to strive to find a long-term solution.

I would like to thank fellow senators for their work on this committee, bearing in mind that it is just halfway through and there is a lot more to be done. Once again I will take this opportunity to thank the secretariat of the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport. Their undying commitment to this work is second to none. They are under enormous pressure—there is no doubt about that—yet they deliver. Nothing is a problem to them. I thank Jeanette and her team and look forward to continuing on to see if we can finish this other part of the inquiry and wrap it up by the December date.