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Impact of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan on regional Australia

CHAIR —I welcome representatives of Swan Hill Rural City Council to today’s hearing. 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 your submission. Would you like to make some introductory remarks and then we will subject you to some questions?

Councillor Cruickshank —Thank you, Chair. First let me welcome the committee and the inquiry to Swan Hill. I know that the attempts to come here back in January were somewhat thwarted by the persistent flood event took place. So thank you again for making your way back to Swan Hill; I bid you welcome. I have a little something here for each of you to remember your visit to Swan Hill by, which is just our little lapel pin. There are some copies of our council plan there. It is not a bribe! As Sharman will probably tell you, one of my habits is handing out what we affectionately call ‘the duck’.

As you are aware, the Swan Hill municipality is located in a very key position not only with respect to Victoria but also with respect to the Murray-Darling Basin. Water is not only the lifeline of the environment but also of the families and the communities in and around Swan Hill and the Murray-Darling Basin. No-one denies the importance of a healthy environment in the river systems. However, it should not be achieved at a huge cost to individuals, families and total communities. If the right balance is not achieved between the environment and social and economic needs, based around water sharing, then our region faces an uncertain future and damage that might take a number of generations to repair.

The GDP of Swan Hill municipality is approximately $1.2 billion per annum. This is largely generated from irrigated horticulture. Any significant reduction in the availability of water will put at risk our municipality and the people who live here. One of the things I have for you here is our council plan. Our council strategic plan is centred upon economic growth and a healthy respect for the environment. The two go hand-in-hand and cannot exist without each other. The council plan set a goal: for our regional population to increase to 40,000 people over the next 30 years.

A project which has been mentioned before, of course, is natural gas. A project that Swan Hill Rural City Council, along with the Murray River Group of Councils and our counterparts, is striving for is the provision of a natural gas pipeline along the Murray River corridor. Natural gas will not only provide a cheaper energy source for our existing industries but will also be a significant driver in attracting further value-adding industries closer to the primary production source. Such projects would drive growth in communities, reduce food miles, keep extra trucks off our roads and drive jobs and population increase. I fear that the depression of the agricultural base through the removal of water will put this in jeopardy.

The council’s strategic plan also recognises the importance of a healthy environment. I am saying this because this is something that the council has already done. The council recognises that there needs to be a balance between the environment and the social and economic values that communities have. We recognise that. We implore the inquiry to take that forward and make sure that the Basin Plan does reflect those values, as we do here in Swan Hill.

It was quite heartening earlier this month to meet with the new basin chair, Craig Knowles. He came to Swan Hill, and we, along with other mayors and CEOs of the region, had the opportunity to meet with Craig, which was very worth while. To use the chairman’s words, the current draft is a dead cat. It always was a dead cat, and no-one wants to own it. If this is not the basis for a ‘start again’ approach then I do not know what is. He also said, ‘The plan, in whatever shape it comes, cannot be controlled from Canberra. It must be addressed and solutions delivered at a local level.’ Nothing truer could be said, because that is a fact; it must be delivered at a local level. As my neighbouring mayor mentioned before—and Max is very strong on this as well—delivery at the local level is essential. With that, the Swan Hill Rural City Council is committed to assisting with driving solutions at a local level. It is also committed to its own council plan and strives for economic growth.

Since the release of the guide to the plan, there has been pretty widespread community anger—as you are probably well aware, with all the community meetings that were held throughout the basin. There was widespread community anger. Why is it so? Well, over the past few years, decisions have been made that have had serious impacts on all our neighbouring communities: VEAC, the New South Wales river red gum and the north-south pipeline. These went through consultation processes where there were grave concerns expressed by all the communities as to the implementation of these plans. Yet they were adopted, regardless, virtually unchanged.

So why are we having our livelihoods and lifestyles challenged just so that governments can appease the metropolitan Green vote? We are tired of it. Country communities are not the enemy. They are the beholders of the environment and they look after the environment. There has been a very unhealthy scepticism which has grown over the past years. Why would we think that the implementation of the basin plan will be any different? The message needs to be loud and it needs to be clear, and it needs to be taken back to government ministers: country communities will not sit back and take this.

In surveying our community, our community members have come forward and put their views. They have already adapted to loss of water. They want a certain future. They have to produce plans on how best to use water. So the government should have a water plan for the environment, equal to that which our farmers are subjected to. There are no willing sellers of water, but people are forced to through other circumstances. The environment has a right to exist, but so do we. Why hasn’t anybody learned from past experiences? There should be more than one strategy to achieve more water for the environment. These were views that were put forward by our own community.

We talk about the Water Act. The preparation of the plan was based on the international agreements. Sharman, you were talking about Ramsar agreements before. There is an opportunity now for those agreements to be revisited and challenged to ensure that they meet their purpose as well as the socioeconomic needs of the communities. Can those agreements be met through other solutions—for instance, engineering solutions? One of my other colleagues talked about engineering solutions to pass water through the environmental assets and then that water can be reused for other purposes. The likes of the Kerang Lakes are always kept at maximum level at the moment. They are kept full, but historically those Kerang Lakes went through a filling and drying period. But now, through Ramsar, they are kept at a peak level, even though we were in a significant period of drought throughout the last 12 years.

The act also allows only for compensation of the asset—the water—and does not allow funding for communities to readjust or diversify. This is not a balance between the environment and socioeconomic outcomes, and that is what is required. If it does not take into account the long-term effects that the removal of water will have, we will have reduced economies in the basin communities. The flow-on economic effects will affect other industries—schools, retail, real estate. There will be job losses in other areas and increased welfare dependency. The ability for those to relocate will also be affected. They simply will not be able to afford to do so.

The guide has highlighted the deficiencies contained within the Water Act and further strengthens the case that the parliament needs to review this legislation. By far one of the biggest concerns has been the lack of socioeconomic data. With the Swan Hill Rural City Council largely dependent upon the availability of water, it particularly puts question marks against a lot of the investments that could be placed within our municipality. Our neighbours spoke about the Kilter and VicSuper partners who are buying up land in between the Swan Hill and Gannawarra municipalities. These organisations are buying up land that was once marginal. They are using the better quality land for highly intensive annual crops as well as vegetable growth. They are also rehabilitating the poorest quality land and returning that to the environment, which is a very good social and economic outcome. Their ultimate goal is to bring people to the rural areas for lifestyle changes and to take up jobs within those properties—there again, providing a social outcome. Reduced availability of water will certainly place the opportunities for this type of work, which is great for land use planning, in jeopardy.

I know we are short of time, but the other thing, as our neighbours over in the Campaspe Shire have said, is that engineering solutions by using less water to water more need to be sought before water buybacks occur. This is already occurring in the Hattah-Kulkyne National Park where water is transferred through in a series of events to create the same watering effect that a massive amount of water would create but using far less water.

The guide recognises that there is variable climate across the basin and that flows are variable and unpredictable—that is chapter 3.6 on page 32 of the guide—although mitigated to some extent by water storages. The argument here becomes a bit clouded by climate change predictions and, as stated, climate variability is likely to increase in the future. This means that more extreme weather events, including drought and floods, are likely to happen more often. That is exactly what it is. It is a prediction; it is not a fact. The whole Basin Plan needs to be based upon fact.

What was the current event that we have just experienced, the one that prevented you from coming here in January? Was it one of those extremes, or was it in fact part of the natural cycle that has happened forever? One of the solutions that have not been spoken about in the plan but it was actually suggested was the scenario—and I use the words—‘mitigated by water storages’. Is there any thought about additional water storages so that we can store more water during the wet periods and save it up for the dry periods?

The current circumstances where recent rains and floods have recharged the basin provide us with a really good opportunity to get the plan right. The ex-chairman, Mike Taylor, stated many times in a number of the meetings that I attended, ‘We need to challenge the science.’ Now we have an opportunity to challenge the science because the plan was basically formed through one of the driest periods the country has ever seen. We have not had an opportunity to study the wetting and then the subsequent drying cycle that this event that we have just had gives us the opportunity to do. We cannot just base the plan on the historical data. We can actually have facts to base it upon by studying what is happening now. That is the whole way we need to challenge the science.

CHAIR —Most of this is in your document.

Councillor Cruickshank —Yes. Thank you. I will wind up by just giving a conclusion. There are a couple of things that we would like the inquiry to consider. We would advocate for a ‘start again’ approach, given the broad-scale community anger and the fact that it has now rained, as I have just stated, and the basin has recharged. We have a chance to study that. We need to recognise and invest in programs that have multiple uses of water. Some of our farmers are doing it already. Some of our bigger, larger-scale horticultural industries are actually growing out Murray cod in their turkey nest dams to give them some alternative use for the water and an alternative stream of income before using that on crops. We need to look at other ways that we can invest in multiple uses of the same water. With that I will close and we will take questions, unless my CEO has anything to add.

CHAIR —Just one question, I guess. I get the feeling that you would rather see nothing happen.

Councillor Cruickshank —Absolutely not. With all due respect, that is not the scenario at all.

Ms LEY —What would you like to see happen?

Councillor Cruickshank —We would like to see a healthy balance between the environment—

CHAIR —When I say ‘nothing’, I mean the Commonwealth being involved. Would you rather see the state just carry out its own arrangements on water use and allocation?

Councillor Cruickshank —I am not going to enter into a debate between the states, federal and local government. What we need to do is have a situation where we all work together for a common cause, and a common cause that starts from the ground up. It must be driven at a local level. If you do not get acceptance at the local level, you sure as hell are not going to be able to drive it from Canberra. It is not a debate about states, and it is not a debate about the Commonwealth.

CHAIR —I will put it another way: why should we be doing something? Why do we not just leave it as it is?

Councillor Cruickshank —I think that we all recognise that the environment does need looking after. We all appreciate that, and that something has to be done. We all appreciate that there is a need for something to be done.

Ms LEY —How is it not being looked after in your area?

Councillor Cruickshank —We have heard all the scenarios that are contained within the Basin Plan. Yes, we have seen deaths of our red gums, but is that a natural cycle? We do not know. Yes, we have seen land degraded over time, but we need to find solutions for that as well. The environment does need looking after. If it is a fact that we need extra water for the environment, how much do we need? That science is, at best, I believe, very wobbly. We have a chance to really study that with the opportunity that we have now, and to make sure that those figures are right. How much water does the environment actually need? Water was flowing past when we had the lowest water allocations on record, yet the river was still half-full. That was water from the environment. Is that taken into account? There are a lot of grey areas within this that need to be looked at before any decisions are made.

Mr McCORMACK —This might not sound that relevant, but it is in the overall context of things. Your school leavers, do they generally stay in the area? Given the conditions we have had over the past 10 years, do school leavers generally stay or do they move away?

Councillor Cruickshank —That is a good question, Michael. Because we do not have university bricks and mortar here in Swan Hill, those that wish to take on tertiary studies leave. But, by the same token, we also have one of the highest deferment rates in the state from school leavers, probably because parents simply cannot afford to send their kids to major cities and house them, feed them and have them continue their studies. We end up with a high rate of welfare dependency and we end up with decreased levels of opportunities for our young people. Most of them do seem to drift away, yes.

Mr McCORMACK —Of those who drift away, do a lot of them come home to roost?

Councillor Cruickshank —No. Some do, but essentially I would say that the vast majority stay away. There are not the opportunities in the country for them. Certainly, economic drivers such as natural gas will provide opportunities for those industries that require tertiary educated employees. They need engineers, skilled accountants and bookkeepers, and all those things that tertiary education can bring. Yes, that would probably provide opportunities for them to return.

Mr McCORMACK —That is generally why I asked the question, alluding to the fact that with investment, natural gas and good water outcomes the community will generate things for those younger people to stay and whatnot.

Councillor Cruickshank —Yes, Michael. I would say that if you take away our council plan and read it, that is exactly what it says.

Mr McCORMACK —I will for sure. Thank you. I will wear the badge with pride too.

CHAIR —The badge is solid gold?

Councillor Cruickshank —It looks like it.

CHAIR —You mentioned Kerang Lakes, and that under current circumstances they are kept at 100 per cent capacity. What is the capacity?

Councillor Cruickshank —Max might able to answer that question for me. There is a considerable amount of water. I know that during the floods it did get to 189 per cent capacity, if that is possible.

Dr STONE —I do not know, but it is easy to find out. Goulburn-Murray—

Councillor Cruickshank —It is on the website.

Dr STONE —Yes, it is on their website.

Councillor Cruickshank —The Goulburn-Murray Water website will have it.

Dr STONE —Were ephemeral lakes pre-irrigation and pre-Ramsar—

Councillor Cruickshank —Pre-Ramsar.

Dr STONE —Pre-irrigation too because it uses irrigation storages before Ramsar.

Councillor Cruickshank —Again, that is a double use of water, which is one of the things that we should be encouraging.

CHAIR —The point I am trying to get at is: when was that site struck? Was that back in the 1970s?

Dr STONE —Yes, the 1970s. It is one of the old ones.

CHAIR —It has been kept full ever since, even though it was not kept full historically?

Councillor Cruickshank —They are ephemeral lakes, yes. Do not get me wrong, I do not want to see them emptied because they do provide multiple uses for water. This is an example of our revisiting the Ramsar agreement and making sure that we are meeting the requirements of the agreements and asking if there are any other solutions that we can provide to still meet those agreements?

Dr STONE —The lakes are actually raised and lowered, so they are not kept constant.

Councillor Cruickshank —That is right.

Dr STONE —According to the breeding cycles of the ibis and so on, they are raised and lowered but they are never empty, as they would have been naturally.

Mr ZAPPIA —Greg, can you tell me what has happened to the population over the last decade? I notice it is 22,000 at the moment. Has it changed at all? Following on from your last answer, are those Ramsar sites that you referred to a tourist attraction for your city?

Councillor Cruickshank —Yes, they are, very much so. The ibis rookery is a big tourist attraction over in the Gannawarra Shire, most certainly. Going back to the original question, the population of the Swan Hill township has increased. It has been growing at about 1.2 per cent. Largely, the municipality has decreased or grown very, very slowly. The Swan Hill increase is probably due to farmers retiring off the land and into town. But the population of the municipality has grown very slightly over the last 10 years, probably by about 2,000 people.

Mr Hovenden —There is some conjecture about the population of the municipality, if you take into account that the council, the state government and ultimately the federal government are not quite sure of the population in Robinvale, which is 135 kilometres from Swan Hill. We are all planning for a population of about 4,500 people. It could be anywhere from 6,500 up to 9,500 people.

Mr ZAPPIA —Increase?

Mr Hovenden —Based on reports, they have a transient population coming in and out. The reliance on the data from the last census is not too good, because two days before the census took place the Department of Immigration and Citizenship went into Robinvale and caused a downturn in the population.

However, the council’s strategic plan is obviously very ambitious. It is predicated upon the ability of the council to value-add; to retain a lot of the produce that is being marketed and produced here in our municipality and value-add. It is a fine balance between produce and water. I think the council and the community certainly do appreciate the balance, and there is an opportunity with support from all levels of government.

Back to your question: who should have a role? Everyone has a role. Politicians and the community have a role. We each have to learn what that role is, but there is a great opportunity within the north-west of Victoria and across the river into the Riverina to utilise water and to reuse water, to value-add and to get projects like natural gas. I think that if it comes into the north-west of Victoria, which is the untapped source of our state and the last remaining part of Victoria that does not have natural gas, the benefits, the reuse, the flow lines and the value-adding not only to produce but also to the use of water will then come on stream.

Then at the end of the process we will all sit back and say that we contributed to making a success rather than cherry picking answers. I think we need to have a combination of answers that look at infrastructure, reuse and the environment. You are sitting in a part of the Murray River that is just a natural stretch of the Murray River. We see it every day. Our community sees it every day. They value it. They know its value to their livelihood and to the community’s livelihood. That is why we work overtime to protect the environment and, importantly, to protect the Murray River.

Dr STONE —Greg, you have talked about the natural gas infrastructure—and, self-evidently, that would be such a boon. Besides that, what other social infrastructure would assist if this plan went ahead with any further contraction of water, which would make it more difficult for productivity without a lot of water saving measures on-farm or river? Is there any other social infrastructure that is needed in this area so that there is an adjustment possible for a future scenario that was originally envisaged in this plan?

Councillor Cruickshank —Certainly, access to tertiary education close-by is probably the most important. The next one—

Dr STONE —So that is building a campus—

Councillor Cruickshank —Whether it is bricks and mortar or whether it is virtual. Access to tertiary education is critical, as Michael said, for retaining and educating our young people. Then also, hopefully, with the flow-on effects that come from having natural gas with a pipeline connecting along the Murray River and the added industries, the employment opportunities will actually keep our young people here and provide growth and a growing population.

While we are looking at Melbourne, for instance, it is growing unsustainably. It is taking up and going across what once was productive farmland and taking up all that land. They have got problems with infrastructure, water supply—all of those things. They are looking at the expense. The median price of a house in Melbourne is somewhere approaching half a million dollars. Half a million dollars would buy you a palace here in Swan Hill.

So there are significant opportunities for lifestyle changes, we believe. We have abundant land, fairly cheap land. If we create opportunities through social infrastructure investment and drive job opportunities we really have an alternative place for those people to live, rather than being crammed into Melbourne, where it is a two-hour drive to cover 30 kilometres to go to work. If you wanted to live 30 kilometres from here, it would take you 15 minutes to leave a beautiful spot out at Nyah to drive into Swan Hill to go to work. It is a magnificent drive along a tree-lined highway all the way. I do not think there is a comparison as to the choice, to be honest.

Mr Hovenden —To follow up on the mayor’s comment, you have to make your community attractive. You have choices in life. If you want to live in the city and expect all the city trimmings then perhaps you should stay there. If you are looking to make a change, right along the Murray River corridor we as a community and we as councils—collectively as the Murray River Group of Councils and individually—try to make our community as attractive as it can be by offering facilities to the people that we are trying to attract to our community. Expanding on the mayor’s answer, it is obviously about transport connections and the availability of appropriate levels of service, whether it be in education, health or otherwise.

It is interesting when we talk about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the impacts on the environment. I think an untapped source at the moment is alternative energy. I think you are sitting in the heartland of a real opportunity for alternative energy—not only within the Swan Hill municipality but right through the north-west corridor. They are the sorts of things that need to be explored.

Could we make a plea for some support on probably one of the biggest impediments to making some real inroads and changes not only in looking at the environment and the health of the river system but everything that we do at a local and, I suspect, state and federal government level—that is, our friend, cross-border issues? If you ever want to tackle something, tackle cross-border issues. The response thus far has been, quite frankly, poor—26 years to try and solve fishing licences between Victoria and New South Wales. That leads to some level of scepticism when we are actually dealing with the major issue that this inquiry is looking at. It does impact. It impacts on our quality of life. If you are going to solve water issues, solve cross-border issues as well.

CHAIR —We do not mind dealing with relatively small issues, but fishing licences—good luck to us!

Dr STONE —In other hearings we have heard from some Indigenous communities about what they call cultural environmental issues—cultural water needs and so on. Swan Hill has a big Indigenous community. Robinvale and Nyah and so on do too. I do not believe in our public hearing part we are going to have an Indigenous representation either. Have you got any awareness of what local Indigenous communities might be thinking? Have they made any submissions to you in relation to their response to what has happened in the plan?

Councillor Cruickshank —Certainly, the Swan Hill municipality has the largest per capita population of Indigenous people in the state of Victoria. Already we have seen, through the VEAC study, the changing of the Nyah-Vinifera Forest and it going under management of the Indigenous people. There is a significant range of artefacts and Indigenous people through the Nyah forest, so obviously the natural environmental flows of water through the Nyah forest would be very beneficial to those people.

To fully answer your question, no, we have not had a full representation from our Indigenous population, which is probably something that we really should chase up because they have been largely unrepresented or under-represented through the community consultation that we have undertaken. It is something that we probably should take up as well, and I thank you for that.

CHAIR —We are starting to run out of time. Thank you very much for taking the time to come along. You are obviously both very passionate representatives of your community.

Councillor Cruickshank —We are passionate about our community, as you are, Mr Windsor. When I heard you on Lateline the other night, you are passionate about your community.

CHAIR —Wares Creek is a great place to retire in! A transcript of the Hansard will be available; if there are any issues, please let us know.