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Management of the Murray-Darling Basin system

CHAIR —I welcome Mr Ray Najar from the Murray Darling Association Inc. (SA). Before we go to questions, do you wish to make a brief opening statement?

Mr Najar —I would like to, Senator Sterle. Ladies and gentlemen of this committee, to address the problems of the Lower Lakes and the Coorong today, we the Murray Darling Association feel that this problem cannot be resolved in isolation. The problems facing the lakes communities can only be resolved by looking holistically at the basin issues which we have outlined in the preamble in the summary which you would have in front of you. We have presented in the folders that you have been given this morning a picture of where the basin is today, how we got there, and the many issues to address.

We have throughout the document put forward recommendations for solutions to most of the issues currently facing the Murray-Darling Basin and we would passionately but directly request that all options outlined be given full consideration and, in some cases, the need to run field trials to prove that the theory behind the ideas can work. We also seek the opportunity to further expand on the methodology of parts of the plans to ensure that the process needed is fully understood.

Ladies and gentlemen, the anger and frustration of those dependent on the basin is not just an immediate response: it is cumulative and very deep seated. We feel that the question of user pays needs to be properly addressed, particularly with regard to the rising cost of water, and the question we ask is, ‘Are we running out of water, as are many other countries in the world, or will the basin return to its former capacity?’ We believe that the evidence is mounting in support of the former, not the latter. In this context, should water resources be under public or private control? We always have advocated the need for national control of the water services of this country, and the water issues in the Murray-Darling Basin in particular.

I will not attempt to read any major part of our document, but I think it is important that we the Murray Darling Association acknowledge the severe circumstances that all communities of the Murray-Darling Basin currently find themselves in. This entire entity contributes to the social fabric of our great Australian nation, and there is no other parallel, with over 1.9 million Australians producing 12 per cent of Australia’s GDP in good years and providing 65 per cent of our net agricultural exports in a value added sense. We must not overlook the benefits to our resident population of now over two million and the vast benefit of the decentralisation that the community of the Murray-Darling Basin as a whole has given to the development of the Australian continent.

The Murray Darling Association influence stretches across the entire Murray-Darling Basin landscape and beyond, into coastal cities. It has seen through its history of 64 years the benefits that the carefully managed resources of water, land and air can do to assist in the growth and development of this great continent. We all know that water is the essence of life, not just for human inhabitants but for the entire ecological fabric of our landscape and the whole biodiversity. We must protect that biodiversity with every means available to us, and that will no doubt mean that, for continued sustainability, we must act on change urgently; more urgently than we have done in the past. The procrastination of our political leaders during the great centenary drought of 1897 to 1904 and again in 1938 to 1946 led to major works that helped build this nation to form what it is today. I will close on that point and accept questions. Thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you very much, Mr Najar.

Senator FARRELL —Thank you, Mr Najar. You represent communities right across the basin, so I would guess that you have a pretty good understanding of the wide range of impacts that the extended drought is having. Can you give us a few of your own personal insights into the suffering and the uncertainty being experienced across the basin at the moment.

Mr Najar —Certainly. I am sure it is no secret to many of you here in the room—in front of me and behind me—that many of the communities that are stretched from the Queensland border all the way down to Goolwa are suffering severe economic hardship at the moment. Some examples of that are organised communities like Bourke, where you had a population of 3,200 two years ago and you now have 2,400; Deniliquin where all the major industries have had to shut down due to the failure of the rice crops for the last two to three years. Obviously, you would be aware that 18,000 tonnes of rice was produced last year compared with 1.3 million tonnes in an average year. We believe that cotton is being grown only off of groundwater in this current year; no surface water is to be used because it is just not available. We understand that the Barwon-Darling cap has been implemented now for two years and there has been a 67 per cent cut in their allocations, even though they are general allocations. That has also had a severe effect on communities along that system.

In saying all of that, we do not deny that there is a need for a cut in the cap and we do not deny that there has been an overallocation in the history of the past by all the state governments. It is chronic in some areas. There are a few areas that are benefiting from the drought because of the rush of the mining industry and a few other industries that are popping up in certain areas, but even those industries around Cobar and places like that still require water for their long-term existence and sustainability.

Senator HUTCHINS —You said that the anger and frustration in the communities is deep seated. Is there any particular group at whom they direct this anger and frustration? Is it federal government; is it state government; is it people in Adelaide who come up with what might be seen as simple solutions? Can you outline to us who the frustration is directed at?

Mr Najar —I feel that the anger and frustration is more from a point of view that people feel helpless that they cannot achieve what needs to be achieved. There are always articles in the media about people accusing other people of not listening and not taking notice and not being conscious of the fact that we have a problem and we need it fixed, but those problems exist in every community. While people might understand that we are seeing the combination of a drought and climate change occurring simultaneously and there are lots of calls for action in certain areas and for things to happen that they think should happen, whether they are feasible or possible or not, I think—

Senator HUTCHINS —Such as, Mr Najar?

Mr Najar —Such as the desire, for example, to drag water from the Darling system into South Australia, which we know geographically and physically is not possible. The losses would be tremendous. The gains made would be very finite. One of the things we are really conscious of is that downsizing the system is very important right now, because the long-term view is that the recovery that we have been hoping for is not going to happen. All the signs are that most of the rainfall run-off figures are heading south. It is almost the opposite of a share portfolio at the moment, which has been heading north for 15 years. This has been heading south for 15 years.

Our expectation of returning to more of the same as we had in the past is unrealistic, and I think the frustration is coming out because a lot of people do not understand the full implications of that situation.

Senator HUTCHINS —So you are saying that it is unrealistic to think that, by just pulling this water out of the north, it will solve the problems in the south.

Mr Najar —There is that view by some people. Unfortunately, with all the good will in the world, anyone that understands the distances, the odd geography and the landscape would know that 200 gigalitres, for example, let go out of Cubbie Station tomorrow, would be lucky to reach Wilcannia, let alone get into the Menindee Lakes.

Senator HEFFERNAN —It would not get through the flood plain.

Mr Najar —That is the point I am making. I think there is an opportunity coming up. If we have a repeat of the season that passed between December and March of this year—the season just past—in that northern part of the basin, it is very possible that there would be an ability to create a major flush past Menindee Lakes into the Murray system and then further down into the system, but I cannot see that happening for at least another four or five months.

Senator HUTCHINS —Mr Najar, in your opinion, is it likely that there is going to be enough fresh water in the system to meet the needs of the Lower Lakes and Coorong in the long term?

Mr Najar —Under the current structure, no.

Senator HUTCHINS —Thank you.

Senator NASH —On Cubbie, you mention in your submission that buying out Cubbie is ‘not wise and not necessary’. Can you expand on that a bit for us.

Mr Najar —The problem with the statistics on Cubbie Station is that everyone looks at it as being a Sydney Harbour. I think it might have been a Sydney Harbour once in its entire life. The average percentage in Cubbie Station up until this last season was less 15 per cent for the six years from 2000 to 2007. To actually put the kinds of dollars behind the Cubbie Station licence today would be buying a lot of blue sky, and that money could be better spent in upgrading our systems and—

Senator HEFFERNAN —Hear, bloody hear!

Mr Najar —improving evaporation losses at Menindee Lakes and all the other wetlands that we need to address through the entire system. I think it is foolhardy. If we want to do anything at all with that kind of system, we should change the trigger points at which they draw water.

Senator SIEWERT —Sorry, could you say that again.

Mr Najar —If there is any one thing that could help the situation in the long term, it would be to change the trigger points at which they extract water.

Senator NASH —Which is my next question, Mr Najar. You then go on to talk about changing the trigger points. Can you explain to us exactly what you mean by that and what benefit it would bring, in your view.

Mr Najar —I think there needs to be more conscious direction as to just how the extractions are taken out of the system at the moment. I am not au fait with all of the Queensland government’s numbers that they play games with: what water leaves, for example, the Jack Taylor Weir at St George, which triggers the point at which Cubbie is allowed to start its pumps up, and just how many pumps it starts up and how long it runs those pumps for. We have to have a better understanding of what flows should actually go past Cubbie before those pumps are started. There has to be a flush in the system to work. In this last season they probably took, from the numbers I received, about 20 to 25 per cent of what actually flowed in the Culgoa system in the major event that occurred in January-February of this year just past.

Senator HEFFERNAN —You say ‘start the pumps’. It is actually not the pumps they start; they open the channels and it gravitates.

Mr Najar —They do pump some, though, Bill.

Senator HEFFERNAN —They took 50 per cent of the 2003 event. They took 200-odd gigs then. They are proposing, as you know, Mr Najar, to implement the ROP, which will make financial instruments of the authorisations to extract that water and make them tradeable. If they did all that, which is hundreds of millions of dollars potentially, that water would return to the flood plain and not to the river.

Mr Najar —The other issue is that, if you understand the geography of that system, you only have to look at the flows that came down Warrego in January-February of this year, whereby 2,000 gigalitres went past Charleville. At Cunnamulla metering station it had already dropped off to about 1,500 because of the Cuttaburra outflow towards the Paroo, and there are also eastern outflows off that system that head in the direction of Culgoa. So the water spread was something like 20 to 30 square kilometres wide, and that is why the flow over the Queensland-New South Wales border was only about 1,200 to 1,300 gigalitres. So you had almost a 50 per cent drop-off from what fell around Charleville and north of Charleville to what actually crossed the border, and there was very little extraction out of any of that water.

Senator NASH —On the more immediate Lower Lakes issue, in your view is there any water in the system that could be extracted to come down and be put into the lakes? If so, how would that happen?

Mr Najar —We felt that there was a short-term opportunity provided the weather conditions were right, and I think we are fast running out of cold weather to do this. We have suggested that the weir pools between upper pool lock 1 and lock 9 be lowered by about six inches. That would create a flush of about 50 or so gigalitres into the Lower Lakes. At the same time we also felt that, to get the lakes back to a sensible level of at least sea level so that there would be a longer time for them to deteriorate like they have in the past 12 months, the important point was to share some of that water, because we know that South Australia is going to be allocated 970 gigalitres in this current 2008-09 year due to the formulas of the dilution flows that have to come down the system.

So it would have been possible to maintain the health of the river system quite adequately from lock 9 to lock 1 with that flow that has been allocated into South Australia. We have already gone two months, so we only have 10 months left. There is enough water, we believe, in the system to get water into the Lower Lakes immediately so we do it before there is a blue-green algae strike, before the warm weather and before we even have a salinity issue, because we know that water is going to be following on, and we have to hold those weir pools then to at least 150 mil lower than they currently are being held at, and that would have to be for at least 12 months.

Senator NASH —What response have you had to that suggestion?

Mr Najar —In some cases very angry and in most cases complete and utter silence.

Senator NASH —What are the reasons for that response?

Mr Najar —Maybe it is a lack of understanding of the point that I am trying to get across.

Senator FISHER —Mr Najar, you mentioned 50 gigalitres. How much water would be required for that option if exercised when you say it needs to be exercised?

Mr Najar —Sorry?

Senator FISHER —How much water is needed to get your 50 gigs?

Mr Najar —This would only be part of the recovery. I predicated that on the basis that, while we are not advocating a complete flooding of the lakes with sea water at all, we believe that it would not have hurt to allow some water to come back through to Tauwitchere Barrage to meet that flush in Lake Alexandrina.

Lake Alexandrina is already too salty to be used for human or domestic application anyway, so shandy some of that water. There are about 1,000 gigalitres sitting in the Lake Alexandrina system now. To put about 50 gigalitres of sea water in there to get the levels up while we meet it with this fresh water would mean that there would be over 100 gigalitres of water that would not normally have got to the lakes. It would at least help their recovery and hold them until the flush that we believe is going to come down from the Darling in the next 12 months—or less than six months, we hope.

Senator FISHER —Given your experience and expertise, what is your view of quarantining of water in the Menindee Lakes for critical human needs for Adelaide?

Mr Najar —The water is being managed by the New South Wales government in Menindee Lakes, about 200 gigalitres of which has been allocated for South Australia already. We understand that and we also understand the implications of water supply for Broken Hill. That is why in the paper we are suggesting that fast-tracking the Menindee Lakes system to get better water efficiency use for Broken Hill is highly critical. That way you would not have to be holding all this water in Menindee Lakes. But we cannot release it while we have still got the Broken Hill issue on the monkey’s back.

Senator FISHER —What is your view, given you have identified the Menindee Lakes system as No. 1, the major area of evaporative loss? Indeed, that water that is being quarantined and held in the Menindee Lakes, arguably for critical human needs, may evaporate before it is ever called upon. Is that not right?

Mr Najar —That is exactly right. There will be a loss—evaporation—in that, and that is what the whole Broken Hill water supply is predicated upon: the fact that there has to be a certain volume of water in that system for them to be able to guarantee their next 18 months of supply.

Senator FISHER —When that is identified in part for critical human need, how do you reckon the people of the Lower Lakes and the Coorong think of that critical human need when compared with theirs?

Mr Najar —I think they are identical.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Do you think it is quaint that Broken Hill does not actually have any water restrictions—the psychology being that if they introduced it, people would defraud it? So they have not got restrictions. They are sparing with their water, I think.

Senator FISHER —Actually, Mr Najar may know about this, there is evidence that Broken Hill has reduced its water consumption by some 27, 28 per cent without water restrictions, and they would be arguing that that is because they are waterwise.

Senator HEFFERNAN —That is exactly why it is quaint.

Mr Najar —They went through some pretty horrific times three years ago, with a water quality that we would be totally ashamed to have in our households. And it is not just the human disgust at the quality of that water. It was similar to what people on the Lower Lakes and Lake Albert have experienced in the last six months—no different. It has done damage to hot-water systems, to piping systems, to various parts of equipment in those houses. The cost to those families has been quite enormous.

Senator HEFFERNAN —So do you think we should lift water restrictions in Adelaide so that they use less water?

Mr Najar —I think that water restrictions in any city are an abomination.

Senator FISHER —Hear, hear!

Mr Najar —Most of those cities are against the sea. They have options. I would very much like to see Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane get their act together and get their water supply sorted out.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Hear, hear!

Mr Najar —There is just no need for any of the cities living on a coastline like Australia’s to be short of water.

Senator FISHER —And do you know that Minister Karlene Maywald cannot show that South Australia’s water restrictions are causing South Australians to save water? They are saving 30 per cent of their backyard water use, which you would know, Mr Najar, is going to equate to a whole 11 gigalitres a year—11 gigalitres out of South Australia’s annual usable take from the Murray of 600 gigalitres. That is about 1.8 per cent and a pee in the pond that is fast becoming the Murray.

Mr Najar —I know from my own household that we have reduced our usage by 50 per cent, because I can tell that by my water bill.

Senator FISHER —Do you reckon that is because you are waterwise?

Mr Najar —It is because I have made my family stop doing things that they used to do willy-nilly.

Senator FISHER —Hear, hear! As most of us are doing.

Mr Najar —But can I just question you on those figures. If there is a 30 per cent reduction in water use in Adelaide, that equates to about 60 gigalitres a year, because we are normally about a 200-gigalitre user. I will add to that that every 100 gigalitres that is pumped from the Murray into Adelaide equates to 16 per cent of irrigation allocation in the River Murray system in South Australia. We only need to have 100 gigalitres of water to give those farmers 16 per cent of their allocation. Two hundred gigalitres would be 32 per cent.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —Mr Najar, could you tell us whether you have looked at what the impact would be if we let water out of lock 1 and lock 2.

Mr Najar —All the way up.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —All the way up. Have you considered the impact that the drop in water levels in that region would have? If so, is that something you could take on notice, in terms of the impact?

Mr Najar —I certainly have. You might not be aware of my experience. I am a river boy. I spent 40 years of my life working on the river system. I have installed pumps on that river system for various organisations and groups and towns and private operators. I can say that a six-inch drop in that level would have very little effect on their day-to-day activity. It would alleviate some of the pain in the Lower Lakes sooner rather than later, because it is water that is accessible today. If we do not do it now, if we leave it until summertime, we are liable to get a blue-green algae issue from pulling that water out, because we are not only talking about the river, we are talking about all the wetlands still connected to the river, and there is a lot of shallow water in those wetlands. We could actually reduce the evaporation losses in the system for the next 12 months as well, by doing that, by reducing that surface area.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —If this is something that we could be doing today or tomorrow, what is the resistance?

Mr Najar —I think it is a lack of understanding. I have asked the department in South Australia for figures on those surface areas. I have been only able to use Google Earth to get my numbers right, and that is not very accurate. I would like to see a much more accurate plan of all those backwaters. I do know that there are several hundred backwaters that are still connected to the river. There is quite a big surface area of water that is connected to the river today. As long as we keep those weir pools chock-a-block full, we are going to experience a lot more evaporation loss than we should have to put up with.

ACTING CHAIR —Thank you very much, Mr Najar. Thank you for coming along today.

[11.46 am]