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Monday, 3 April 2000
Page: 15063


Mrs GALLUS (8:15 PM) —Today I want to grieve about the Murray River. Within 20 years salinity levels of the Murray River at Morgan in South Australia's riverland are predicted to exceed 800 electrical conductivity units 40 per cent of the time. This means that Adelaide's drinking water will exceed the World Health Organisation's recommended standard for drinking water salinity. It means Adelaide's water will be undrinkable.

South Australia is at the end of the Murray-Darling river system, the fourth longest river system in the world, and as such South Australia is dependent on other states to look after the river which is its lifeblood. Sadly, the river has been used, misused and abused and, as a result, the river itself is sick, suffering from reduced flows, increasing salinity, blue-green algae, destruction of animal habitats and endangered native flora and fauna.

It is not only South Australia that is affected. The Murray-Darling Basin takes up one-seventh of Australia and supplies three-quarters of the water used in Australia. The Australia-wide consequences of salinisation and rising saline water tables include declining river quality, loss of productive land, damage to roads and buildings, damage to conservation reserves, native vegetation and animal habitat, and increased flood risk.

Although dryland salinity was first reported in 1853 in Victoria and irrigation salinity was noticed in the 1890s also in Victoria, we failed to do anything about it. By the end of the last century—that is, the 20th century—salinity was increasing by nine per cent per annum. On 4 June 1981 my predecessor, the former member for Hawker, Mr Ralph Jacobi, said in this place:

After 100 years of thoughtless exploitation, the viability of the River Murray system as a resource is in jeopardy. Honourable members will recall that recently it even ceased flowing to the sea. If present trends continue, it is only a matter of years—or less if there is prolonged drought—before this river and its tributaries, which supply most of South Australia and many thousands of people in New South Wales and Victoria with domestic water, become not merely unpleasant, but quite undrinkable, and practically useless for irrigation.

At the rate we are going, South Australia will soon have the undrinkable water predicted by Mr Jacobi almost 20 years ago. Yet still now, after all we have learnt, we are not looking after the river.

In 1995 the Murray-Darling Ministerial Council introduced a cap on water use in the basin at the 1993-94 levels as an essential first step in ensuring the long-term health of the system. However, while both South Australia and Victoria have systems in place to increase compliance and have met their target, New South Wales and Queensland have not. They have exceeded their cap. New South Wales and Queensland have allowed a 30 per cent increase in irrigated crop area within the river system.

In the Namoi River Valley, part of the Darling Basin, the amount of water extracted from underground aquifers has exceeded sustainable yields by more than 200 per cent, causing the water table to fall by as much as eight metres in some areas. Queensland and New South Wales have not met their cap, but in reality they never could because they have allowed total water entitlements in the basin to exceed the cap. It is not as if the caps themselves were set at radical limits. The cap targets are so conservative in the sense of favouring the users that, even if complied with, they will not achieve sufficient water flow for the health of the river.

A review of the river in February by the Cooperative Research Centre for Freshwater Ecology said that cap levels have been inadequate. I quote directly, I believe, from their report which appeared in an article in today's Australian:

Current indications of continued decline in river health suggest that with current land and water management practices, the cap does not reserve enough water for the environment.

The report goes on to say that a quarter of all the water diverted from the river system is lost on its way to the farm gate. In 1997-98, 2,500 gigalitres were lost basin-wide as a result of poor irrigation. It might be of interest to members from Queensland and New South Wales to know that the 2,500 gigalitres lost as a result of poor irrigation are equal to 16 years water allocation of Murray River water to the city of Adelaide.

What is to be done? We are killing the river, and if we are to save it and the billions of dollars that is produced in the catchment area we must radically change the way we do business on the river. We have to spend money. Some inefficient irrigation systems can lose up to 40 per cent of their water because water is moved through open channels. The Mulwala Channel in New South Wales is a prime example.

Where water is transported to areas away from rivers, it must be enclosed in pipes to stop evaporation and seepage. I know that this is an expensive option. If it is too expensive, the alternative is to stop carrying on productive activities with expensive, long distance interbasin transfers to water users and to move our productive activities to where the resource is abundant. Unless we are prepared to put in the expensive pipe infrastructure, production must move away from the water poor inland to the water-rich, tropical mid-north and tropical Queensland. More importantly, there must be implementation of full cost recovery. In this way, water being used for irrigation on properties with marginal profitability should be reallocated to higher value farming systems and the environment.

It might be of interest to members to know that for every additional megalitre of water used the value of rice produced is only $60, the value of irrigated dairy farm produce is $110, cotton is $235, fruit is $450 and vegetables yield over $600. We must be asking why we are using our rare resource to grow rice, dairy products and cotton when we could be realising twice the value in other crops.

One of the problems that encourages the wasteful use of water in the Murray-Darling Basin is the low price that is charged to irrigators who use 72 per cent of the water in the basin. Water should be priced like any other commodity, and there is no reason why the irrigators in the country should get water any cheaper than the consumers in the city. Water must be traded like any other commodity to achieve the most efficient usage.

In Australia we are extremely wasteful in our use of water. Water is used for irrigation or in the cities it is used by consumers just once, whether it is to shower, wash their cars, water their lawns or water their vegetables. Compare this with Israel where the same bucket of water is used repeatedly. Water pumped from the underground is used first for tourist spas. Then the same water is moved into aquaculture. This enriched water is then used to grow hydroponic crops with the remainder going to drip irrigate field crops.

Australia is one of the lucky countries. We are one of the few countries in the world who do not have to share their water resources with any other country. This gives us an extraordinary advantage over other countries such as those in the Middle East and Africa where 50 per cent of the people depend on water that originates in another sovereign state. We do not have to deal with other sovereign states polluting and diverting our water. But the Australian Constitution, in making water the province of the states, did this country a great disservice.

The states of Queensland and New South Wales have historically and still today a de facto policy of beggar thy neighbour. The problems of the Murray-Darling River system stem not from the diversion and pollution of our rivers by another country but from what we ourselves have done to that river and from the failure of the states to work together for the benefit of the river system as a whole and the country as a whole. South Australians, dependent on the River Murray, demand that the upriver states put their house in order. (Time expired)