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

HARRISS-BUCHAN, Dr Arlene, Healthy Rivers Campaigner, Australian Conservation Foundation

PITTOCK, Dr Jamie, Technical Advisor, Australian Conservation Foundation

TALUKDAR, Ms Ruchira, Healthy Rivers Campaigner, Australian Conservation Foundation


CHAIR: Thank you. Do any of you have anything to say in regard to the capacity in which you appear?

Dr Pittock : I am a research fellow at the Australian National University but I am appearing today as a technical advisor to ACF on environmental works and measures.

CHAIR: 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 any of you like to make some opening remarks before we go to questions? It would be good if we could stay pretty much on the terms of reference—the groundwater issue and the environmental works and measures, and how your organisation views proposed savings.

Dr Harriss-Buchan : Thank you for inviting us today and giving us the opportunity to talk to you. At ACF we think that there is a strong role for environmental works and measures in returning the basin to health, but we are very much of the view that those works and measures should be used to supplement environmental flow, and not as a substitute. There are some really important environmental works and measures already out there in the basin which are very much proving their value. There are many around Hatter Lakes, Barmah-Millewa and so on. But we feel that some of these good environmental works and measures have inadvertently given the impression that works and measures can be used as a long-term, realistic alternative to environmental flow, and of course that just is not the case. There are good environmental works and measures. We have provided examples of some of those in our submission, and we are happy to talk about those, and there are bad environmental works and measures. Jamie has provided an empirical analysis of some of those, and might like to talk them. As well as the value of those from an environmental perspective, we are also a bit anxious about precedents which have already been set in the expenditure of the infrastructure program. These are around looking at the environmental, the social and the economic benefits, or the criteria around some of those infrastructure programs.

We have been supporters of the infrastructure program, but we feel that there just has not been a proper analysis done on many of those projects which have already been funded. That has resulted in some really stinging criticism of many of those projects from the Australian National Audit Office, from the Centre for Policy Studies, from the Productivity Commission et cetera, and we have some copies of those, and also a short summary of some of the criticisms behind that. We just do not want to see environmental works and measures falling into the same trap of not being subjected to a really rigorous analysis of all of the environmental, the social and the economic benefits and therefore falling into the same trap of being criticised harshly and then being viewed as a waste of public money. So, in summary from our perspective, if those environmental works and measures projects and irrigation infrastructure projects stack up against a proper analysis, then they should be funded. If they do not stack up against a proper analysis then they should not be funded. Either way, we see that those infrastructure projects do have a role to play, but the buy-back of environmental water has also demonstrated, and every analysis shows, that it is the most efficient and effective way of returning those environmental flows to the system. So that should not be excluded to the benefit of trying to fix the problems with concrete and steel.

CHAIR: Okay. Any other comments?

Dr Pittock : My research has looked at the $280 million spent by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority on the Living Murray program and also those additional measures proposed in November last year through the Murray-Darling Basin Legislative and Governance Forum, and through your past committee's report. Firstly, there are three types of measures that I think are worth the committee treating separately. One type are those that are about irrigation water delivery efficiency that have no direct environmental benefit and are worth considering on the basis of their economic merit. The second class are those non-volumetric environmental works and measures—things like building a fish ladder on a dam and cold-water pollution control devices. Those are very useful, there are lots of public good benefits, those are worth considering. My research has focused on the volumetric environmental works and measures—that is, measures to put water out of a river channel and on to flood plain wetlands. The conclusions briefly are that very small areas benefit from that. Of the three target wetlands in the Living Murray program, only a third of the wetland areas would benefit; and across the Murray-Darling Basin that was only 0.6 per cent of the 5.7 million hectares of wetlands benefited from that program. There are tremendous environmental risks that have not been considered in that programs: things like cutting water off to the non-target wetlands, beyond the areas targeted by the works and measures, and risks like black-water pollution events that have not been considered. There are big institutional risks. For these environmental works and measures to be successful, state government officials have to turn the taps the right way every year forever, and given the sorts of cutbacks we are seeing in catchment management authorities in states like Victoria and New South Wales at the moment, I think we have to ask, 'Who is going to pay for the ongoing maintenance and operations?' Lastly, these works and measures on the flood plains were very time-consuming and very expensive. Only around half of the original 33 measures that were proposed in the works and measures program were actually delivered. The cost was around $679 per hectare of wetland that can be wetted. That is a lot of money that could be spent buying wetland land for nature reserves or buying water entitlements. There are opportunity costs there that I think the committee could usefully consider. Thank you.

CHAIR: Anyone else like to say anything?

Ms Talukdar : That is the introduction and we can take questions.

CHAIR: Okay, questions?

Mr McCORMACK: Yes, I have a question, Chair. Darlington Point, which is a community in my electorate on the Murrumbidgee River with a population of more than a thousand, maintain that if the sort of water that is being demanded by environmentalists—including I would imagine by your group and by the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and others—of 4,000 gigalitres-plus is put through the system every year the town will have to move. I heard my parliamentary colleague, the member for Kennedy, say only yesterday in parliament that the way things are going, with the number of farmers ceasing production of food and vegetables and anything else, we are going to become a net importer of food within a few short years time. Certainly if farmers do not have available water, then that is going to take place. What do you say to those sorts of claims? Is it viable that we can all work together so that we do have a triple bottom line—social, economic and environmental implications—without driving farmers off the land and townships away from where they have been settled for more than 120-plus years?

Dr Harriss-Buchan : This is a little bit outside the terms of reference.

CHAIR: He does that!

Dr Harriss-Buchan : That is okay. I will try and be brief with that.

CHAIR: We could get a question about Gonski in a minute or two.

Mr McCORMACK: I could bring the carbon tax into in a minute!

Dr Harriss-Buchan : I will worry about Gonski in a couple of years, thanks very much! In terms of the 4,000 gigalitres, whether we are talking 2,750, 4,000, 6,000 or 7,000 we do not know, as environmental organisations, and you do not know and none of us knows what the environmentally sustainable level of take is and therefore what the actual SDLs are which should reflect that. The modelling simply has not been done, which is why groups like ours have never been an advocate for any particular water recovery point. It should be about the environmental outcomes we are seeking to achieve and therefore what is the best way of delivering those outcomes. There seems to be a consensus developing around about the 4,000 but that is largely because the authority has not done the work that it ought to have done to work out what we actually need. So it should be about outcomes. Any question that those outcomes can be achieved without real water is just a furphy. The biggest problem in the Basin is over-extraction of water. The best-fit solutions to it are about putting water back, but the solutions should be a mixture of water and works. That is what we feel about that.

In terms of being a net importer of food or of food security issues and so on, this is a debate that we are all going to enjoy having for a long time but, as I understand it at the moment, Australia exports something like 60 per cent of our food and something like 25 per cent of the food that we make is wasted. It ends up turning into methane and producing lots of CO2. I think that before we worry about a starving nation let us worry about more immediate things first. But we are obviously—and I hope you understand this—supporters of environmental, social and economic benefits. That is the way that the Water Act was drafted in the first place. They are the outcomes we should be looking at.

Dr Pittock : In the original The Living Murray Environmental Works and Measures Program, there was proposed to be investment in removing constraints to delivery of flows, and that was not fully implemented. It was one of the cuts. That is proposed in the works through the Legislative and Governance Forum on the Murray-Darling Basin. Removing constraints is a win/win outcome because it enables greater delivery of water for the environment and it also helps reduce the flood risk to rural communities and so that would be the type of environmental works and measures that it is worth investing in.

Ms Talukdar : Our recommendation really is that, firstly, the environmental sustainable level of take needs to be modelled because we need to know what it is that the river needs, with a valley-by-valley assessment that is done of system constraints that could be removed or could not be removed. Then we can talk about what can be done versus what cannot be done, keeping the triple bottom line in mind. But without that information on the table it is not possible to come to a clear solution or a clear conclusion, because we do not have all the information.

CHAIR: It just seems to me—and please correct me if I am wrong—that you are saying that we probably should not do anything for the moment.

Dr Harriss-Buchan : No, I would not say that. There is a pretty clear—

CHAIR: The message I am getting is that we really do not know what we are doing, because we have the audit office reporting on things, and the—

Dr Harriss-Buchan : No, I think you are suggesting that we do not know what the major problem is, but we do know what the major problem is—and we have known that for a long time. We certainly know the direction we need to head in. We may not know what the precise destination is. But delay has been a killer of reform so often. We have been paralysed in the basin by an unwillingness of the states to move forward, always acting at that lowest common denominator. So no, we are certainly not suggesting that for a second. I think enormous gains have been made since 2004, since the Living Murray program. Those of us who have been around for that long working in these areas have seen the acquisition or the reallocation of lots of water. There has been investment in good environmental works and measures, and good land management issues. I think lots of progress has been made. We know the direction we need to go in. We do not know how far we need to go. But I think stopping movement now that we have some would make it very difficult. If we lost that momentum, it would be very difficult to start again. So no, I am not suggesting at all that we should stop because we do not know what we are doing. That is just not true.

CHAIR: I am just being the devil's advocate here: can you understand why a groundwater user, for instance—where the science is not in, one way or the other—would argue 'until we get the science right'? Even in my own area, where we have coal seam gas issues, mining issues et cetera, they are arguing that things stop until you get it right. We are tending to get a lot of information, from both sides of the debate, that says we do not have it right yet but we do know the problem.

Dr Harriss-Buchan : That groundwater issue is an interesting one. God forbid that we go down the same path with groundwater as we did with surface water. Ten or 15 years ago there was, again, that debate about there being plenty and that it would do. Actually, there was not. I sit on the Basin Community Committee, which has a broad suite of views from all manner of interests across the whole basin and so on. One of our pieces of advice in relation to the proposed basin plan was that the increases in the extraction of groundwater should be thrown out, that we should have gone back to what was in the guide, because why would you want to create a problem when there does not have to be one? It is a big basin; there are lots of problems, lots of issues. It is not a one-size-fits-all situation. The groundwater issue is one where you ask: why would you want to proceed down a path with increases in allocations and then create a big problem in the future when we do not have to have one? I think that is where stopping until the expert scientific committee has decided what those sustainable extraction levels are would be a case of 'hasten slowly' on the groundwater. But the same set of circumstances does not apply to the question of how we address the problem of overextraction in many of those other valleys.

Dr Pittock : Perhaps I could add that I think there are a number of works and measures that are very definitely worth investing in. They include things like reducing the flood risk to flood-prone infrastructure in rural areas. That has a co-benefit in reducing flood risk generally and also in enabling delivery of environmental water. There are also things like fish passages on barriers and rivers, weirs and dams; thermal pollution control devices on dams; and larger dam outlets to enable more variable operation. These are all very good, useful, practical investments.

Mr McCORMACK: I do not want to digress from the very important groundwater issue, but how can you create an overbank flow without a flooding event? Is that possible? And how can you deliver it—and where would you deliver it?

Dr Pittock : Well, an overbank flow is by definition a flood, and floods are natural in the system and bring many benefits. In fact, it is very closely linked to groundwater. If we want a lot of groundwater we need overbank flows to enable water to infiltrate into the groundwater and recharge aquifers. So we do want some floods but, obviously, we do not want very damaging floods. So the question is: how can we more cleverly and more systematically manage the passage of flood flows down some of these rivers? There are many places around the world where this has been done by doing things like re-engineering flood levee downriver systems to enable passage of a consistent size of flood. At the moment we have the ridiculous situation in places like Victoria where, for example, the capacity of the levees to pass floods narrows as you go downstream in some river systems. We can clearly do better than that.

CHAIR: If I could follow that up, we have had evidence in terms of natural constraints, such as the Barmah Choke. Is your organisation comfortable that you can actually transport some of this water at higher levels to achieve overbank flows in certain areas without quite dramatic third-party impacts?

Dr Pittock : Yes. With investment it is certainly possible to do things like raise bridges, change property access and roads and do those sorts of measures that would enable larger flows to be passed down these river systems.

Dr Harriss-Buchan : But that does raise an important issue around system constraints, doesn't it? It is something which we have known about for a while but it did not really raise its head as being quite such an impediment to (1) the delivery of environment flows and (2) the modelling that we talked about earlier. So what do we actually need? The fact that those are not properly factored into the models means it is hard to work that out. But clearly they have a really dramatic impact on our ability to deliver environment flows, but yet there is no really clear and systematic analysis or study of what they are and where they are. There is no prioritisation. There is no work plan. There is no funding there to address it. I am aware of the work that is happening with COAG and so on at the moment, which is good but I think that needs to be expanded with a proper work plan in place in order to deal with those systematically.

Mr McCORMACK: This morning we heard evidence from the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, who said that they felt that the majority of water icon sites within the Murray-Darling Basin had already been lost irretrievably. Do you agree with that?

Dr Pittock : I would certainly agree that there are large portions of some of these icon sites that are severely degraded and it is questionable whether the full extent of those wetlands can be recovered. Clearly, if you take out 40 or 50 per cent of the water in a river system there is a concomitant loss of wetlands. What I think we need to do is to decide how much of the wetlands area that we as a society are willing to invest in and to keep. I find the authority's guide and plan material deficient in not quantifying more clearly which areas of wetlands are being sacrificed versus which areas are being conserved.

CHAIR: That might be a good area to finish up on, because it goes to this issue of balance that we are all wrestling with. We thank you for taking the time today and for your submission and for your previous work as well in terms of this issue. Thank you very much.


That this committee authorises publication of the transcript of the evidence given before it at public hearing this day.

Committee adjourned at 12 : 33