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Impact of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan on regional Australia

CHAIR —I now welcome a representative of the Murray Darling Association to today’s hearing. Mr Najar, 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. We have received a written submission to this inquiry from you. Do you wish to make any additional submissions or make an opening statement?

Mr Najar —I would like to make an opening statement. Firstly, I appreciate the opportunity and thank you for the efforts that you and your team are going to to achieve a better outcome for the Murray-Darling Basin. I would like to begin with a quote from Hansard South Australia from 1982, in which the Hon. Ralph Jacobi MP was quoted as saying that without a national approach to water reform and management on a national level the Murray-Darling Basin would move into a slippery slide of decay, and water security would not receive the priority that is necessary for the environment, agriculture and human needs to remain in balance and in harmony with our growing population.

At the time, he was reflecting on the first time since white settlement that the Murray mouth had silted over, which was due to the combination of drought and the overallocation in those lean years when the expansion of food and fruit production was going through a new growth phase. Even in South Australia, many sleeper licences were being activated as the government was alluding to ‘use it or lose it’ as a phase of development.

The Murray Darling Association then believed, and to this day believes, as we restated in a COAG submission in May 2004, that basin reform must happen with three qualifications and that a national body, a body with some independence of state and federal politics, was needed to carry out the following work priorities in order. There was an agenda initially at that stage. Money was put on the table under the National Water Initiative, which produced a great number of varied and conflicting agendas and competing forces that now exist.

Firstly, we believe infrastructure upgrades are essential. As we have identified in our various submissions over the years and in our brief summary of works and measures, upgrades and re-engineering can produce in excess of 1,500 gigalitres over 10 years of remediation works.

Secondly are urban waste treatments systems. A highly important investment, in partnership with local government, would be to upgrade waste-water treatment and reuse systems, to restore stormwater retention basins and, where feasible, bring into service aquifer storage and recovery systems for both potable and irrigation water use.

Thirdly—and in this order—government’s perception of the quick fix, which was the purchases of licences, is the least desired option but unavoidable in some situations.

Of course, the impact of water trading could not be understated in the very strong debate on the socioeconomic impacts on communities; hence the reason for the MDA taking the above positions one to three. Who are and who will be the traders? They will be the lower socioeconomic farming communities with no succession planning. At that time, in 2004, an ABC Landline program and seminars produced that result.

The Murray Darling Association supports in every way the need for the Coorong and the Murray mouth to be maintained as it needs to be under the Ramsar agreement. Releasing water in good and bad times is always a good thing for that estuary. But we are not worried about what happens in times such as we are currently experiencing, although even the salinity of Lake Albert is a problem and will remain so for some time regardless of how much water we pass through the Tauwitchere barrage. There are things to consider when you look at how to manage the Lower Lakes, the Coorong and the Murray mouth, and I think our submission notes pretty well cover most of the issues that need to be addressed.

The macro situation is to ensure that the ecology of the system can be supported in whatever conditions that nature throws at it. Lake Albert would be well on the road to recovery today if the pipe connection under Noonameena peninsula were installed and delivering approximately 400 gigalitres over a six-month period, given that flows, even in good times, exceed 2,000 gigalitres through the current barrage system. Only a difference between the high-water spring tide and 0.6-metre AHD in the lake is required to achieve that outcome, and of course it is far improved with a higher lake level.

What is needed is a system that can sustain water levels and freshwater flow into and around Goolwa Channel and into and through Lake Albert. We must protect the Finniss Creek and Currency Creek estuaries. Pool level below lock 1 must be maintained at at least 0.5 AHD so that conditions of that system can function; so that those communities who rely on tourism can be sustained; so that irrigators who need fresh water can be sustained; so that salinity levels at towns like Milang, Langhorne Creek, Clayton, Goolwa and Meningie can also be kept at official world health standards; so that the estuaries of Finniss and Currency creeks can be protected, as they need to be freshwater estuaries; and so that in low-flow conditions the Coorong remains healthy and the Murray mouth does not require constant dredging. Furthermore, a safe harbour could be created inside the mouth, at Goolwa Channel. There is no safe harbour on the Australian southern coast between Portland and the city of Adelaide. There is nowhere for ships to find safety.

It is a nonsense to suggest that Lake Alexandrina would become hypersaline if a major section of it were separated from the remaining freshwater body, as it would receive adequate dilution flows in good years and remain at a healthy level, never again to see acid sulphate soils appear as were created by the hysteria of 2007-10. The tests and trials and re-engineering of this system must be given a fair go if we are to maintain viable communities upstream and a healthy ecology at the lower end. The evaporation savings alone amount to approximately 600 gigalitres per year and, given the remedial works upstream, the Living Murray program water buyback, the average of 2,000 gigalitres per year for basic environmental sustainability and dilution flows can be maintained. There will still be good years and the strong flows, even floods, to better balance those lean years, but we cannot give up what our pioneers worked hard to build and what successive governments have encouraged and supported. As is currently evident with the higher than predicted flows coming into the system, the environment is going to see some enormous good come out of these flood events since early September in Victoria and New South Wales, and that is without the devastation that has just occurred in Queensland.

As is currently evident with the higher than predicted flows coming into the system, the environment is going to see some enormous good coming out of these flood events since early September in Victoria and New South Wales. That is without the devastation that has just occurred in Queensland. Now we have almost a full system that is generally very wet and about to get wetter. To say that the current diversion levels for food production are an impediment to a healthy river system is without any basis. To say that in lean years we need different trigger points for different diversions is a necessity that we have quickly come to learn in these past five years. The Basin Plan must reflect all conditions and all options and communities will then know how they need to adjust their economic baseline to handle good and bad seasons. Again it is clearly understood that parts of the basin ecology have suffered more than was necessary. If some common sense is used and the varied conditions are treated on their merits, there can be some sacrifices made to ensure that there is never a repeat of the worst recorded drought in the history of white settlement. I will leave it there for questions.

CHAIR —Thank you. Before asking the other members of the committee to pose some questions, you mentioned just towards the end the need for different trigger points for different diversions. Can you elaborate on what you actually mean there? I know that some of that is in your original report, but I would like some detail.

Mr Najar —I can elaborate on that. The time that I have spent mainly in Queensland and New South Wales more so than Victoria, because Victoria has a different characteristic, being mainly off the southern connected system, but in the northern system I do not believe the trigger points for extraction have been set right regarding diversions into private storages, for example. When you look at events, there is a base flow required in those systems to allow the ecology to be sustained even in its local environment. If the trigger points that are currently set remain, and they are low, then you do not get those base flows to sustain the local ecology in a manner which fits it to survive the difficult times. When you do have the higher trigger point flows, you can actually divert into the private storages, move on with food production, but it does not affect what happens then with a low flow condition, because most of those situations now draw their water at a certain level of flow, at a certain level in the river. It is because of those levels and the drawdown at those points that we are not seeing a balance with the ecology. So it is not a matter of reducing people’s entitlements, it is a matter of how we handle those entitlements over a period of 10, 15 or 20 years.

Mr ZAPPIA —Thank you for coming along with your presentation today. My first question you may or may not be able to answer. Can you tell us whether there has been a net increase in the number of permanent water licences that have been bought into South Australia as opposed to what has been sold out of the state?

Mr Najar —I believe there has been a net increase, very small, from the water trading that I am aware of and that has been documented. I think you will find that a company called Water Find has done a very thorough paper on this. It has been of the order of about five per cent. We have basically an irrigation diversion out of our 650 allocation of about 509 to 513 gigalitres. I believe we have had a net increase, even with the sales going out of the state, of about 35 gigalitres of water come into the state. In saying that I would like to add, and I probably should have said this in my opening statement, that South Australia did set its baseline back in 1970. It has done an enormous amount of remedial works, starting from Renmark Irrigation Trust back in about 1968, with the help of federal and state funds and with growers’ funds input. That has carried through the last 30 years through every irrigation settlement in the Murray, from the border all the way down to Murray Bridge. Of late there was even an attempt before the drought kicked in and the river levels dropped to upgrade the Lower Murray swamp irrigation settlements where proper metering was going to be completely installed and upgrading of those funds so that they become more water efficient.

In effect, South Australia put a line in the sand in around 1970 as far as its water allocation, and it has stuck rigidly to that. I mentioned earlier in my opening statement that some of those sleeper licences did come out, but the number has not changed. The number has been effectively fixed at about 509 gigalitres of diversions for irrigation for food and fruit production. Yes, water trading has helped. Even temporary water trading has helped enormously to allow that condition to remain and survive. I think there could be a lot more emphasis on temporary water trading to overcome a lot of the issues that we are going to face in the next few years—possibly, the next 50 years.

There has been a lot of talk about climatic change and a wetter north and a drier south. We have had three floods in Victoria in less than 12 months, and who knows what nature is going to throw at us in the next 10 years. That is why we have emphasised the need to a system that can actually handle some of these huge variations that we are currently facing. We are not worried about high flows. Sure, we get worried when people get hurt—as they have in Queensland—but there is very little to offset that as far as what nature throws at us. We have to be aware that, with good flows in the system, there will be some people who will be hurt, and there is very little that we can do about that.

Mr ZAPPIA —I have one other question. In your submission you talk about separating Lake Alexandrina, saving water and the evaporation losses as a result of that. Can you elaborate on how you would suggest that that should be done?

Mr Najar —There is a drawing in our submission. It is not a total separation of Lake Alexandrina; it is about 85 per cent of the surface area. It involves maintaining and upgrading the Goolwa and Mundoo Island barrages so that they operate as freshwater outlets. That is why we emphasise the need for a connection from Lake Albert into the Coorong. That is 35 kilometres from the Murray mouth, as opposed to Tauwitchere barrage, which is about 10 kilometres from the Murray mouth.

When the Murray mouth is at its peak—which should be 300 to 400 metres wide and eight metres deep—you get a much better tidal flux into the Coorong. In that way, you get a much better mixing along the northern lagoon of the Coorong. We are not talking about the total Coorong, because the southern lagoon, as we know, is affected by the south-east drainage system more so than it is by the northern lagoon action, although there can be benefits from what we are suggesting, even in the top end of the southern lagoon.

The actual condition for Lake Alexandrina is so that there are flood escapes built into that barrier, so that when we have conditions like we are currently looking at today we can actually have fresh water flowing into that lake as we know it today and we can still have that interaction of fresh and salt water. It just means that in tight years, in lean years, we reduce that surface area from 900 square kilometres down to 300 square kilometres. Effectively, we protect all of the assets that are there under the Ramsar agreement like Boggy Lake. People at Milang do not have to have a beachfront with grass on it instead of water. Langhorne Creek pumping station could have kept operating. There never needed to be a failure of the Finniss and Currency estuaries. A lot of effort and pain went into saving turtles because we never had fresh water in the Goolwa Channel.

There are so many aspects that we would like to see investigated properly. We think the upside to that is that you gain a safe harbour at the Goolwa Channel. You also gain a development plan for the Lower Lakes for future generations—for waterfront development and marinas. We are currently digging holes in land based sites like Hindmarsh Island, creating more surface area and more evaporation losses instead of doing the reverse and building our marinas in the water as is done overseas. You can actually establish more waterfronts by doing what we are suggesting with Lake Alexandrina than you can do by just creating more marinas by digging more and more holes in our current land surface area.

Mr ZAPPIA —Thank you.

Mr SECKER —On your map, Ray, there is some sort of regulator or weir—I do not know what it is—from Pomanda Island back to Nalpa Station. What is it, exactly?

Mr Najar —There is a series of connecting bridges from the mainland onto the causeway—

Mr SECKER —So that is what that is. And I think they are numbered as B(1), B(2), B(3) and B(4). That is just a bridge. You try and utilise the regional aspects, the geography, of the situation as much as is practicable and it just happens that Pomanda Island falls into the ideal position to be utilised as part of the overall causeway construction. But it is blocked there at the moment—

Mr Najar —I realise that, but it would not be blocked in the future; it would become the river channel right around to Langhorne Creek and into the Goolwa Channel. That gap would have to be in the order of 500 metres to a kilometre wide, excepting that property for that point. I do not know the exact measurement between the mainland and the main part of that land mass. They are only suggestions; they are not fixed. You have to look at the safety aspect, and you also have to look at the future tourism aspect, because it can be linked to highway 1—there is already a well-made road from highway 1 across to the Narrung Ferry—and there would be a bridge built from Point Sturt—

Mr SECKER —Point McLeay—

Mr Najar —Actually, no, a lock fishway has to be constructed just below Point McLeay. I know from speaking to some Ngarrindjeri people that that will actually allow them to reclaim what used to be a natural fishing estuary for them. It is the land from the current Tauwitchere barrage and Loveday Bay right back to their current settlement. So there is a whole list of things that need to be investigated and looked at, and people have to be consulted on all the aspects.

But it is only part of the mix of what needs to be done in the overall basin. It is not the only solution. As we have pointed out in our paper, it is important that the Menindee Lakes upgrade is done in such a way that, when we do have lean flows, we do not have an extra 100 square kilometres of surface area—the area that currently forms Lake Cawndilla. We need to ensure that, if we did not have the luxury of high flows, the surface area of those Menindee Lakes systems would be limited so they could be more effectively used, and we would not have such a huge surface area. Again, equivalent to 200 gigalitres of water is being lost in tight times. We are not concerned about the evaporation losses as we currently speak but we will be concerned about them if our river system goes into recession.

I think our paper outlines the savings that could be achieved by infrastructure in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. I particularly chose a document from an ANCID study done in Victoria on the Goulburn-Murray system. That points out some of the works and measures that are required there. If some of those major works were done, about 23 per cent of evaporation and seepage losses would be saved.

CHAIR —Thank you very much, Ray, for your appearance. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. We will be having a tea break now till 10.30, when I think the South Australian Council of Social Service will be appearing. If I could just take this opportunity, I have only just realised that Senator Hanson-Young is in the audience. Welcome, Sarah.

Mr SECKER —And also Mitch Williams.

CHAIR —A state member. Welcome, Mitch.

Mr SECKER —He is shadow minister for water.

CHAIR —Shadow minister for water. I am being prompted here! He must be a good fan of yours!

Mr SECKER —And the mayor, Allan Arbon.

CHAIR —All the best, Allan. Thank you for allowing us to utilise your premises. It is a lovely town.

Proceedings suspended from 10.06 am to 10.36 am