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Standing Committee on Regional Australia
22/06/2012
Certain matters relating to the proposed Murray-Darling Basin Plan

MURRAY, Mr Michael Bernard, Manager, National Water Policy, Cotton Australia

[12:00]

Evidence was given by teleconference

CHAIR: Welcome. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. Would you like to give a bit of an opening gambit?

Mr Murray : Yes, very briefly if I may. Unfortunately, this whole Murray-Darling Basin debate is focused too much on the numbers and not enough on the environmental outcomes. But I think this inquiry has an opportunity to address that to a certain degree. I would like to refer to the committee this. In the report that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority handed down, along with their latest version of the plan, they had nine recommendations and I think most of those recommendations actually have a lot of merit and should be taken on board by government. In particular, I would like to refer to recommendation 9, that environmental water must be integrated into a broader natural resource management, and I think there is an opportunity here for the works and measures.

To put into some context, with the current plan being all about flows and effectively all about hydrology, one of the major issues about the health of our river system—certainly not the only one but one of the major ones—is the absolute proliferation of carp as a pest species. What we have seen is an explosion in carp numbers following the recent floods. So it is simply the case that if one of your environmental concerns is to enhance native fish numbers that is not going to happen just simply by adding water. It needs to be an integrated approach. With the instance of carp, it may well be about including carp traps along the basin and maybe advancing the Daughterless Carp Project and also enhancing conditions for native fish. Likewise, you could release all the water out of the headwater storage out of the bottom of a dam where it is too cold or you could release the whole dam and you would not enhance fish breeding if the temperature of the water were not suitable. So you could actually invest money in multilevel offtakes and actually enhance your environmental outcomes. So it is really about a point in time, and it would have been better if it had been done before now but there is still an opportunity during the Basin Plan process to really embrace the idea of localism and getting local input and identifying quite specifically what are the environmental outcomes that are wanted at each catchment level and then working on the best way of doing that. In some cases that will be the addition of more water. In some cases that will be part of the answer. In some cases there will be a whole range of other things that could be done and done in a lot more cost-effective manner.

I will bring in another example being the Gwydir and the Macquarie, both iconic catchments in terms of their wetlands. Unfortunately, the vast majority of those wetlands are actually in private hands. That is particularly so in the Gwydir where there has only recently been a purchase that is now part of the New South Wales national parks network. But otherwise the vast majority is in private hands. Over $200 million has been invested in water buybacks in the Gwydir and yet that water is still being sent down into the wetlands where there is a range of uses for it. There is some environmental benefit from that water, but there is also a lot of private benefit. A much better outcome, in terms of the environment, would be a combination of both water and land management. That could mean the voluntary purchaser of land entering into management agreements with existing landholders. Much can be done in that area.

In my submission I did refer to the Macquarie Valley, where a group of interested people in the Macquarie, largely landholders, purchased a very degraded cattle property in the middle of the Macquarie Marshes area. Over the last three or four years, they have totally changed that property around. There are some pictures in my submission and a link to the website. That has been achieved not by adding one drop of extra water that would not have normally flowed to it under the then-existing environmental rules but by managing that land better. That is a perfect example of where a broader approach would work.

We are in the situation in the north where we do not have a lot in the way of headwater storages. We have a limited ability to release water on demand. That needs to be addressed, particularly, say, in the Lower Balonne—another good example there. Three or four years ago—I think it was in 2008—there was a major bird breeding event in the Narran Lakes. That bird breeding event was put at risk due to the tailing off of flows. A very successful outcome was negotiated in quite a short time where water that was held on on-farm storages was purchased and released. It managed to lead to a successful bird breeding event. That sort of approach is certainly required in areas like the Lower Balonne and can also be replicated in other northern valleys, such as the Namoi, the McIntyre and the like. To a certain extent, the north has been a bit forgotten in this debate. A lot of focus has been on the south. There are big numbers in the south. When you look at the percentage of reductions that are required, there is still a very significant impact likely to occur in the north. In particular, it will impact because of the shared stream components and the likely areas where that will come from—the Namoi and the Macquarie valleys.

Certainly, we believe something needs to be done on Menindee Lakes. Menindee is a very inefficient storage. There is an opportunity there to make it more efficient. I guess I am a little bit sceptical of some of the high-saving solutions because I do not really think that they stack up. Certainly, significant work needs to be done there. Those savings that are made there—at least some, if not all—need to be credited to northern New South Wales. It is just worth noting that, even thought the Basin Plan says that we are not trying to deliberately take water out of the northern basin and send it to the southern basin, as a consequence of the extra flows that we require within the northern basin, I think the figure is that just under 200 gigalitres extra will flow into Menindee Lakes. That is just one part of the reason why any savings in Menindee Lakes certainly need to be shared with the northern basin. I might leave it at that and take questions, if that suits.

Mr McCORMACK: What are your cotton growers telling you? If the 2,750 gigalitres go through and that amount of water is taken out of productive use, what are your cotton growers telling you? How much of an effect will that have on your industry?

Mr Murray : It ranges. I will use the example of the Gwydir Valley. Under the federal government, I think they now own, effectively, 20 per cent of the general security entitlement, and if you include water owned by the state government for environmental water it is more like 22 or 23 per cent. That already has an effect. What we will see is that we will still have good years—and we are currently having a good year, thanks to heavy rainfall—but those good years are nowhere near as high as they would have been if that water was also available and they will not extend as long. Our next drought will be correspondingly worse.

I lived in Moree in the last drought. When you walked down the street, you would see probably 10 to 15 shops closed in the main street. I think that next time around we will see 14, 15 or 20 shops closed. We will see that in the other valleys, and the valleys with the most impact if the proposed plan goes forward will be those in the Lower Balonne. If you take another 100 gigalitres from, effectively, below St George, you are going to have a major impact on a township like Dirranbandi, which really has bloomed to a certain degree thanks to the cotton industry over the last 15 years. It will certainly go into a tailspin if all that water is taken out through buy-back. There are certainly some opportunities there to get much more effective use of environmental water in the Lower Balonne by putting in weirs that will allow you to better manage flows between the Nagoa and the Narran, for example. There is also the idea of actually coming to some arrangement with existing landholders and water entitlement holders to store water off-stream and release it when required for specific environmental outcomes such as maintaining a bird breeding event.

CHAIR: On the top of page 7 in your submission you make the point that Cotton Australia strongly believes that at all times irrigation entitlement holders should have a genuine option of either participating in buyback or in an irrigation infrastructure program. Can you elaborate on that?

Mr Murray : We as an industry have fought long and hard for people's water entitlements to be recognised as a property right, and it should be freely available to trade. We do not have a problem, per se, with the government buying water, and we know certainly that many of our growers have sold water and would like to continue to be able to do so. At the same time we also see the benefit, particularly for our communities, of water savings achieved through efficiency measures—and in the north, because of the lack of public infrastructure, most of our efficiency measures will be on farming. We would like to see that people have the choice to engage in that. In 2008 the priority projects were announced in New South Wales and Queensland, but you would all be aware that, really, for New South Wales those priority projects have only just been finally signed off in the last couple of weeks. The vast majority of time, except for a small trial between the Macquarie and the McIntyre, our irrigators in New South Wales had no choice except to enter into the buyback market. We would have liked that at any particular time they could weigh up their options and say, 'The feeling from my community is that my best deal is to buy back,' or 'My best deal is to engage in the irrigation efficiency scheme.' The situation in Queensland is slightly better in that they have had the first round of their healthy headwaters project running for about the last 18 months. That had a reasonable level of uptake. They have just got approval to go forward into their second level of work. Menindee Lakes and other major reconstruction has been on our radar for a long time—far preceding the basin plan, yet nothing has been done except develop many, many kilograms of reports.

CHAIR: Thank you for giving evidence today.

Mr Murray : Thank you for the opportunity.