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Impact of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan on regional Australia

CHAIR —I now welcome representatives of the River, Lakes and Coorong Action Group to today’s hearing. Do you have anything to say about the capacity in which you appear?

Ms Trigg —I have provided a submission as well.

Ms Tregenza —I have also provided a submission.

CHAIR —Thank you. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this meeting is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. We have received a written submission to this inquiry from you. Do you wish to present any additional submissions or to make an opening statement?

Prof. Bell —Yes, I would like to make an opening statement, please. The River, Lakes and Coorong Action Group thanks you very much for this invitation. After just listening to where people are coming from—the regions—we would just like to say that our thoughts go out to you all in the crisis that many of your communities are undergoing at the moment in terms of the floods.

The River, Lakes and Coorong Action Group is an independent, community based organisation, and I am very grateful to know that you have all read our submission. You will know that we have advocated for the federal management of the river and for an independent authority. All we can do today, really, is highlight some principles and guidelines. It really does not fit very well into a bumper sticker—how to manage this very important region of Australia, the whole of the Murray-Darling Basin. Our position has always been that a healthy river will deliver healthy communities and healthy economies. Of course, the issue is: how do we strike the balance? We have always advocated that we are all in this together as Australians and whatever solutions are suggested must be equitable, fair, clear and transparent.

I would like to acknowledge that we are on Ngarrindjeri country here, and I would also like to invite you at some point perhaps to become familiar with some of the Ngarrindjeri creation stories for this area, which explain not only how we should actually manage our rivers but how we should think about ourselves in relationship to something as mighty as the Murray River and its confluence—where it meets the tributaries and the Coorong and where it flows into the ocean. Their stories are of enormous life and energy and the power of the meetings of those waters.

So what can we do? Can we do it? Can we do what needs to be done? I think this inquiry is a very, very important contribution on the issues—the core issue of socioeconomic impacts—and I think we have an opportunity here to, in a sense, expand the debate and reset the debate. There is a lot of anxiety out there in the general community—frustration, alienation and anger—and I think it is actually there for a good reason. I think this committee has the opportunity to address some of that.

I would like to start off by saying it would be good to have some conceptual clarity on what we are talking about. When we talk about the Murray-Darling Basin, are we talking about a thing? Are we talking about water that could be moved around, rerouted, managed, parcelled out, subjected to the politics of scarcity and regulated via a market, or are we talking about the river as a living body—as something that relies on connectivity—where what we might be needing is holistic thinking and a politics of interdependence rather than a politics of scarcity which drives economic decisions? I think that in the last little while we have seen the unleashing of that power of that living body, and we are all slightly in awe of the power of the river. It has a very erratic pulse. We need to learn to live with that pulse. How do we do that, what is the job of this committee and what can we contribute to that understanding?

I would like to emphasise that ours is not a parochial view. I think it is prescient, if anything, not parochial. We have been concerned very much at the local level about the local ecology of the lakes—and I will come to that in a minute. We have been concerned at the state level, in terms of many submissions we have made, on the way in which South Australian policies impact on the larger vision. We have been very involved in EPBC matters at the national level—conceiving of this system as a whole and how we might best manage it as a whole—and also at the international level in terms of our Ramsar conventions. So, when we make comments about what sometimes gets called the Lower Lakes—we like to think of them as the Great Southern Lakes—our comments are about the lakes as an icon and indicator for the whole system.

The things we think we need to know about the Great Southern Lakes, which will put us in a better position to manage the system at the state, national and international levels, are that some two million tonnes of salt are flushed through the system each year and need to get out through the mouth. The mouth has been dredged since 2002 and salt and nutrient has accumulated. It is now flowing out the mouth, and you can smell it if you are at the mouth—you can actually see it and smell it coming out the mouth. There are in fact Ngarrindjeri stories about the force of the expulsion of those salts that have accumulated. They have accumulated more because of the regulation of the river and our use of the river. We emphasise that you cannot just open the five barrages to the lakes and flood them with seawater. You will create a saline swamp where the water cannot get in and out. You will not have the flushing capacity out the mouth and that saline swamp in the lakes will destroy an area, a Ramsar registered site, and will eventually pollute the whole river—and I will show you that on the map in a minute. The other part of the package of flooding the lakes with seawater would be to block the river at Wellington. This will create a blockage of the system, which should be connected, and will not allow the flushing that we need for the health of the whole system. You will also kill the Coorong in the meantime, which is well on the way to a very desperate state if we do not do something about that because of the high salinities. So, in terms of the river needing connectivity, I urge that your committee, in looking at socioeconomic impacts, sees the connectivity of those parts of the system. I think there has been a disconnection in the way in which the river has been managed and the way in which socioeconomic issues have been pitted against ecological issues. So we have had irrigators against environmentalists, but we see it as all of us in this together. The question, then, is: where do we strike the balance?

We see a priority in communicating to Australians nationwide why we are doing this. We think one of the reasons there has been such anger and frustration is that there has not been a clear narrative; there has not been a compelling story about why taking these dramatic measures, which are going to impact on all our lives, is in the interests of the whole Australian nation. I think we have done a very poor job at communicating and engaging Australians. I do not think the Murray-Darling Basin Authority meetings have been good modes of communication or engagement. As a group, the River, Lakes and Coorong Action Group has modelled engagement—we know how to do it—but I do not think it has been done yet by the authority. I think we need to extend the notion of who is a stakeholder in this process, not just the people who are immediately impacted but to include all those who are impacted by all the flow-on issues. As part of the solution, those people need to be engaged and understood. Debate has been captive of special interests and water experts, and I think we just need to expand that.

In terms of what kind of socioeconomic studies we might be undertaking, my training as an anthropologist is such that I tend to see things in holistic terms. I would like to see us asking: what is the ‘socio’ part of socioimpact studies? We should not just ask: what is the risk analysis, what is the balance sheet? We should ask: do we understand the ‘socio’ part of ‘socioeconomic’? What kind of society are we imagining? Post this plan, what is our vision for Australian society? What kind of country do we want to be? That is the big thing that has to be communicated to the Australian nation. It needs to be communicated in accurate and defensible terms.

I have a map of the region, which I was just showing to your colleague Michael McCormack. He said that it was a very good summary, so I thought I might share it with everybody.

A map was then shown—

This is a map of where the River Murray flows into Lake Alexandrina and shows its connectivity with Lake Albert, the Coorong and the Murray mouth. Here we can see the River Murray as it flows down, bringing fresh water and that two million tonnes of salt and nutrient into the lake. That load needs to get through and be flushed out this very, very narrow Murray mouth. On the way we have five barrages that separate the fresh water flows from the seawater. They are all open at the moment. The water is flowing through and the salinity levels are dropping in Lake Alexandrina, but the water is still being held back because the regulator at Clayton Bay has only been partially removed and the bund at Narrung has only been partially removed. These bunds and regulators have to go completely for this water coming down the river to do its work. Lake Albert remains highly saline because the water that normally would move through the Narrows at Narrung is partially blocked and the wind cannot move and mix those waters. Wind is the big character in this system. If you have not stood in a gale on one of these banks you really do not know how important the wind is to the river. The wind picks the water up from Lake Alexandrina and moves it up the river to where the water enters the lake. The wind pushes the water up the river like a funnel. It will move anything up to a metre of water. One week you can pump from this side of the river; the other week you can pump from the other side. As that water gets pushed up the river, it picks up the salts and nutrients and when the wind turns, it brings the salts and nutrients back down and flushes them out into the lake and, if there are no impediments, out through the mouth. That is the work of the wind in this system. The work of the wind here is to move that water around in Lake Albert and bring it through the mouth. It needs to be pushing it and mixing and moving it. If we were to put a weir here across the River Murray below Wellington, the water behind it would hold all that accumulated salt that is coming down the river. It would create a stagnant pool which would be subject to algal blooms. A weir may provide a quantity of water but not quality of water suitable for irrigation or potable water for consumers.

If we were to open the mouth here, open the barrages and let the seawater in—it is about 0.3 AHD—we would not get a flush out the mouth. There is not enough push through the mouth—it is not large enough; there is not enough turnover in the tide. Our core samples, palaeolimnological analysis of sediment cores, that go back over 5,000 years show us that the furthermost point of the intrusion of the sea was up to about here at Point Sturt. That is the turnaround area in there around Hindmarsh and Mundoo islands and the Goolwa Channel. What you will get in the lakes is a saline swamp; you will not get lovely seaside real estate around here. You will get a saline swamp that will kill a Ramsar area. It will pollute all our systems and violate Ramsar regulations. The water also needs to get down here into the Coorong. At the moment the EC in the lake is under a thousand. Down at the bottom of the Coorong the EC salinity is about 125,000. There is your difference. That is why the water needs to be able to move around, and that is what we are destroying by not understanding the connectivity and by parcelling it out in small sections and managing it in sections. I think it is the same for the Murray-Darling Basin system. It needs to be understood as a whole. We need to understand how the changes we might make will impact on the fabric of people’s lives and that needs to be an integral part of our planning. Thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you, Diane. Would any other members of the group like to make a few comments?

Ms Tregenza —I would like to endorse what Diane has said. The position that the mouth of the Murray is the icon and indicator is very important to the health of the river as a whole. Coming from a farming background, I would also like to say, as I said in my submission, that I do not think the government has a responsibility to support unsustainable farming practices. I think people who farm in marginal areas know when they are gambling. I would just like to endorse the need for broader communication with all the stakeholders in the river system.

Ms Trigg —I am surprised that there is only one meeting of this group in South Australia. There seem to be several more in other states. That raises the question about the representation of South Australia and South Australians in this national conversation. The other comment I would like to make is that, as a group working very hard consistently for four years—again, from the local to the international level of analysis and representation—we are very concerned about the pattern of communication that has developed with regard to public consultation. The word ‘consultation’ in our experience represents nothing like consultation, and the pattern of that process has meant that the health of some communities has been affected by the fact that they know they have not been listened to properly. So there is a wide range of knowledge operating in local communities—not all of it agrees—but we have experienced a systematic lack of listening, and that process in itself has created community ill health. We have observed that in the Murray-Darling Basin Authority meetings, which we have attended.

We would like a review, analysis and redefinition of the nature of communication. We believe that, at this level, you should consider asking for advice from people who know how to do it. People assume that communication is just transfer from A to B. That does not suffice because of the complexity of the issues that we are dealing with. The thing that makes this so different from anything in the past is that we are developing, as Diane has said, a new vision for the whole of Australia. With everything that has happened with the floods we are reminded again of the interaction of nature, communities and the future in this country. So, we are asking for a review of the communication practices and that they change.

CHAIR —If I could just comment, Ruth, in terms of the meetings that we are having. These nine days that we are embarking on at present are not the end of the process. There will be other meetings in New South Wales and Queensland as well as in Victoria and South Australia. We have had something like 600 submissions. The main vehicle or stream to get the information into the process is through the written submissions. In that sense these meetings are not designed along the lines of what the authority is having in getting into the technical information. We have not fixed the number of engagements that we are going to have. Obviously, physically, we cannot talk to everybody; it is just not possible. We will take on board your comments. Are there any questions from other members of the committee?

Mr SECKER —It backs up a lot of what we saw yesterday.

CHAIR —Yes, we had a very good look around yesterday. Patrick and others in the local area were able to point out in Clayton and Narrung some of the issues that you raised in relation to salt and wind. That is why we thought it was important to actually start here because there are misconceptions in all our minds in areas that we do not particularly know. I have been here for nearly a week wandering around looking at various things. Through that process we hope to get a real view of what it all means down this end. I think yesterday was very, very helpful.

Prof. Bell —I think that has been one our frustrations, that when people visit here that they actually understand the issues of connectivity. It is very hard when they are standing upriver seeing water and thinking, ‘That’s going past us and it’s just going to evaporate in the Lower Lakes,’ if they do not understand other work that the water is doing on the way down the river and the work that it is doing in the lakes and the work that it is doing as it goes out the mouth. We are very appreciative that you have taken the time to listen and see.

Mr SIDEBOTTOM —Just to reinforce that, a whole range of people that we met yesterday talked about the connectivity issue. That was strongly reinforced. Also, the point you were raising about the politics of scarcity and whether we are looking at water or looking at a holistic thing. It certainly came through. That question you raised about what kind of community we want is part and parcel of what we are looking at in terms of the socioeconomic impact. It finally comes down to what type of community do we want and what type of narrative are we prepared to have. That is reinforced and you have done that today, so we are not completely deaf to that view.

Prof. Bell —I would want to make a distinction between ‘community’ and ‘society’. I was suggesting we ask what kind of a nation do we want to be in terms of Australian society and then I would ask what kind of communities make up that society. They are two different kinds of research designs and questions. We have been rather, I must say, frustrated, as people who do have qualifications in designing quantitative and qualitative research, that we cannot actually get our hands on the terms of reference for individual studies that are being done, and the ones about which we are aware seem to be privileging quantitative desktop studies rather than good qualitative ethnographic studies, which are going to give you the texture of your communities and what change is possible within them.

Ms Trigg —Can I make a comment about the work that we have done over the last four years which has had an educational approach in asking what the issues are and then devising analyses of that. We have spent many, many weeks, in fact months, on the footpath in country areas and in the city talking to people. The thing that we have learned from that is that members of the public, in our view, are way ahead of the political leaders in this country. To summarise that, members of the public know that we have huge challenges ahead of us in terms of the environment and in terms of the future. They actually want more done in that area than they are seeing from their leaders. They are expressing very deep frustration that they are not getting that. If they did get it, I think political leaders would be surprised how much support they would get from members of the public. Members of the public are expressing deep anger and grief at what they are seeing in the degradation of the environment. They do not want that and they want something quite different for the future. They are actually prepared to change the way they live to bring that about. Again, we have spent many weeks on footpaths talking to people and listening to people.

CHAIR —Are there any other questions?

Ms LEY —I have a couple of quick questions. Liz, you mentioned that governments were supporting unsustainable farming practices. Can you give some examples of what you mean by that?

Ms Tregenza —Sorry, just to clarify, I did not say that governments were supporting unsustainable farming practices. What I am saying is that governments should not have to support unsustainable farming practices.

Ms LEY —Yes.

Ms Tregenza —If somebody is going into marginal farming country and demanding to be able to irrigate and saying, ‘This is my right,’ then I think government has a role to lead and say, ‘No, this is actually not okay. It is not sustainable.’

Ms LEY —Can you give some examples of where that might be happening in the Murray-Darling Basin?

Ms Tregenza —I would regard all the western country around Pilliga, Wilcannia, Bourke, which is marginal country.

Ms LEY —There is no irrigation at Wilcannia.

Ms Tregenza —There is at Bourke, sorry not Wilcannia, and also along the Namoi River. The other point I also made in my submission about this is that it is going to be incredibly difficult to police because there have been lots of instances of people just irrigating from the river or cutting their own anabranch with heavy machinery so that they could flood irrigate cotton out there. I guess the other thing is, if I may, I think farmers are prepared to change their practices. The cotton growers at Wee Waa have changed the sorts of pesticides that they use. People are prepared to cooperate. I think it would be a shame if a handful of overly emotional irrigators swayed the intent of the plan for the benefit of all.

Ms LEY —Thank you. One quick question to anybody: there is sometimes tension between another world-class wetland further up the system, the Menindee Lakes, and we have seen both sites in the most recent two visits of this committee. What would you say about the best future management of Menindee given that tension between water being stored in the Menindee Lakes and water making its way to the Lower Lakes?

Prof. Bell —The Menindee Lakes have a different function as wetlands. They were ephemeral wetlands that have been re-engineered. We were very pleased when those old gums got their feet wet again. There was work that should have been done on the restructuring of the Menindee Lakes to make them operate more efficiently. I think that still needs to be done. Water evaporates in the Menindee Lakes the same as it does in the Lower Lakes. The thing about bringing the water down to the Lower Lakes is that by the time it gets down to Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert it has done a lot of work on the way. I think that the Menindee Lakes are a critically important part of the Murray-Darling Basin system. They give us a lot of flexibility. I think the problem for the Menindee Lakes, having visited them on a couple of occasions, dry and in flood, has to do with the politics of it and how they have been managed politically, historically and what the arrangements are in terms of when federal control clicks in in terms of capacity and the need, as I say, to do the work.

So I find it very counterproductive for one region to be pitted against another. We really need to understand what the function of the Menindee Lakes is and how that can function for the integrity of the whole and what the function of lakes Albert and Alexandrina is and how that can function for the integrity of the whole system.

Ms LEY —Just quickly, do you have a view on and a background in the engineering that you just mentioned?

Prof. Bell —Yes. There is work that had been funded that has not been undertaken in terms of the fourth lake coming down as to where the regulators are and what control there is in terms of where water could flow from Lake Wetherell down through the lakes.

Ms LEY —There has been a study and there are four options on the table. I am interested in whether you have a view about any of those four options.

Prof. Bell —From what I have seen on it, I was very impressed by the people who were actually on the ground controlling the water and by just how much they knew about the water as it was coming into Lake Wetherell and where it could go. The local knowledge there was extraordinary as to what water gave benefit to where and how fast it could get to various areas. So I would be going for the option that drew best on that deep historic local knowledge of how best to manage those lakes, which were ephemeral; they were not supposed to be full all the time.

Mr SECKER —Thank you very much for your contribution. That has backed up a lot of what we saw yesterday and what I have been saying to our members for a long time. On the point of South Australian representation, the process is that the parliament actually selects a committee, and that was the committee. There were actually no South Australians on that committee. That was just pure luck. When they decided to have this inquiry, they appointed two South Australians to it because this was a particular inquiry of importance to South Australia. So Tony Zappia and I were appointed to bring in that balance.

CHAIR —Are there any further questions?

Prof. Bell —At your pleasure, if I could conclude with a question. It is one that I have been asked many times in the past couple of months. It is: does this recent rain, the flood and the amount of water coursing through the system take the pressure off us in terms of moving forward with a plan? I think it is a question that you have been asked also. Our position would be yes, we do need a plan—even more so—because what we have seen, in times of both drought and flood, is that we are very ill prepared for dealing with this very erratic river and we need to learn to live with that. That needs to be encoded in some kind of rational management plan for the whole system. So thank you for the work that you are doing.

CHAIR —Thank you very much for attending. If you have been asked to provide any additional information—although I do not think so in your case—please do so. Hansard will provide a transcript and a copy will be sent to you.

Prof. Bell —I would be happy to provide some written comments on those Menindee options if that would be of help to you.

CHAIR —Yes, we would be more than happy to accept any additional information.

Prof. Bell —I have just made a note to myself.

CHAIR —Thank you very much.

[9.20 am]