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Management of the Murray-Darling Basin system

CHAIR —Welcome to Mayor Kym McHugh from the Alexandrina Council and Mayor Roger Strother from the Coorong council. Before I invite either mayor to make a very brief opening statement, we thank both mayors for agreeing to share their time together. Both will have strong views on their councils. Can we direct our questions to the mayor concerned as briefly as possible so that we can have the opportunity to give both mayors the time to put forward their argument. On that, Mayor McHugh, do you wish to make a brief opening statement?

Mayor McHugh —Firstly, good afternoon, and thanks for the opportunity to address the inquiry. The Alexandrina Council covers some 1,800 square kilometres south-east of Adelaide and connects with Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert, along with the Coorong and the Murray mouth. We are the last council on the whole river system. Our council and our community see ourselves as integral to this inquiry and to the national debate on the future of the Lower Lakes. We have called for national leadership on this issue for some time. We are, however, pleased with recent progress: the Prime Minister’s visit in August, and his announcement of an audit of water use along the Murray-Darling Basin is a good step forward.

Of course this is a good first step towards a longer term approach to sustainability and sustainable use of the River Murray, but the Lower Lakes are in trouble right now. We must act now if we are to have any realistic hope of saving the lakes. Alexandrina Council, with the support of our strong community, has been a leading voice in this debate. We see right under our noses the environmental damage at the end of the River Murray. It is now clear that, whether there is drought or whether there is climate change or a combination of both, the real issue is allocation. We cannot afford to overallocate for any single use. Our environment and sustainable activity is the priority across the entire system. The challenge for government is to set the priority, then tailor the allocation to meet it.

There is no time left to allocate blame. It is the job of current governments, supported by their communities, to act with determination to fix this issue so that future generations do not have to pay the price. The Lower Lakes need at least 250 gigalitres of fresh water to survive this summer. This has been our consistent message throughout, and the experts agree. Beyond February 2009, the Lower Lakes need a constant and consistent supply of fresh water coming from upstream to ensure survival. Our view that fresh water is available upstream in the Murray-Darling Basin is supported by the submission to the inquiry by the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts last week.

There are eight options for consideration in that submission; five detail potential freshwater supplies; two look at saltwater options for the Lower Lakes; and one relates to the continued pumping of fresh water between Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert as a short-term option. The five freshwater options outline the difficulties involved in delivery of that water. All involve effort and cooperation amongst governments to sort out water trading regulations, water sharing plans and the like. Alexandrina Council understands that letting the Lower Lakes decline further will lead to acid sulfate soils which will destroy the environment of the lakes. Letting the Lower Lakes decline further is not an option.

Before any government takes the easy option of introducing salt water into the Lower Lakes, it needs to answer these questions: what damage will salt water do to the Lower Lakes environment? How many native fish, birds, frogs, turtles and other wildlife that rely on freshwater systems will die if salt water is introduced? If salt water is introduced, when will the lakes be turned to fresh water again? How is the ecosystem in the Lower Lakes meant to adapt to the change to salt water? How much will it cost to fix the Lower Lakes and make them fresh again after we turn them to salt water? How can we guarantee the protection of the ecosystems of the important Finniss and Currency Creek estuaries? Will the 80 per cent of River Murray birdlife that resides at the Lower Lakes die or relocate? How would salt water in the Lower Lakes area affect the international Ramsar wetlands status? What effect will this salt water have on the groundwater aquifers around the lakes?

While putting salt water into the Lower Lakes is the easy option to prevent them from acidification, we have no idea of the true cost of this option. Fresh water from the Murray-Darling Basin system is the only option for the Lower Lakes which we know is sustainable. For water management of the entire Murray-Darling Basin system to be successful, it must be done from the mouth of the Murray up. First make sure the Murray, the Darling and the Murrumbidgee rivers have enough water to meet their needs for survival before deciding how much can be taken out.

Alexandrina Council is asking two things of the federal government. Both are as hard as they are necessary. Both will require our government to provide national leadership and resolve. We ask that, firstly, the federal government intervene to ensure the environmental and economic sustainability of the Murray-Darling system, even if that requires stepping on states’ toes; secondly, a minimum of 250 gigalitres of fresh water to be released into the River Murray to ensure the Lower Lakes survive this coming summer. We as a community rely heavily on the Lower Lakes. They are our home. We use them for our living, for our recreation and for our business, but they belong to the nation. We treasure them as an amazing place of natural beauty.

I would like to thank the committee for this inquiry as a sign of the Australian parliament’s focus on and commitment to taking urgent action on this issue. Thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you, Mayor McHugh. Mayor Strother, do you wish to make a brief opening statement?

Mr Strother —Thank you, just a brief one. I will give the committee an understanding of where the Coorong District Council fits into this whole issue. The Coorong council starts just south of Murray Bridge on the River Murray, then travels down Lake Alexandrina to Lake Albert. We also continue along the actual Coorong to probably 20 ks south of Salt Creek. Our council area covers all of Lake Albert and parts of Lake Alexandrina, including the Tauwitchere Barrages. That is a brief understanding of where we are coming from.

The other thing that has already happened in the Coorong council area, particularly on what we call the Narrung Peninsula—which is directly affected by Lake Albert and the low water—is that we have had probably 35 dairies on there and we are now down to three. They were irrigated dairies; they are now all dryland dairies. The Valuer General has valued some of the land down there at less than 40 per cent of its original value; 40 to 50 per cent, depending on the particular farm. That is to just understand the impact that has already been made on the area.

The stand on where the future for the lakes lies is that the Coorong council opposes any sea water and it opposes the proposed weir. To back that up, yesterday we had a council meeting and SA Water asked Coorong council to put a quote in for a road to the weir site and the council refused that request, so that is how strong our commitment is against any new structures on the river. I will leave that now and we will take questions.

CHAIR —Thank you, Mayor Strother. Senators, before we do go to questions, we only have approximately 18 minutes. I am going to share it evenly between the two mayors. I will start with questions to Mayor McHugh.

Senator WORTLEY —Mayor McHugh and Mayor Strother, thank you for your submissions. I will direct the questions to Mayor McHugh and, Mayor Strother, please feel free to add your comments. Mayor McHugh, what can you tell us about the prevailing view in the Lower Lakes region for the preferred options for managing the short-term acidification risks to the Lower Lakes? I know you made some comment in your opening statement. Would you like to add to that?

Mayor McHugh —Sorry, the short-term option for?

Senator WORTLEY —The prevailing views in the Lower Lakes region.

Mayor McHugh —The prevailing view, by far, from my community—my irrigators, my environmentalists—is that fresh water is the only sustainable option for the Lower Lakes.

Senator WORTLEY —What is your assessment of the current availability of fresh water in the Murray-Darling Basin and the practical considerations and difficulties in choosing between competing interests or uses such as drinking water supplies, permanent plantings and environmental assets throughout the basin?

Mayor McHugh —We totally understand that the solution is not an easy one. That is why we are calling on the federal government to take control of the whole Murray-Darling Basin. But we know there are over 6,000 gigalitres in public storage in the Murray-Darling system, we know there are over 600 gigalitres in private storage in the Murray-Darling system, we know our federal government has a whole heap of money that belongs to all Australians, and we know this Murray-Darling Basin is precious to all Australians. We have to buy some water and send it down.

Senator WORTLEY —Do you think the local community in the Lower Lakes has a good appreciation of the complexity of these issues and of the tough trade-offs that they necessarily entail?

Mayor McHugh —As I said before, the solution is not easy, but we elect governments to show leadership, to make hard decisions and to manage the assets of this country. Past governments have not done that very well with regard to the Murray-Darling Basin. It has been overallocated and it has been mismanaged. Sure, we have a drought as well, and we have climate change into the future, but if we let this crisis go by without fixing up once and for all the Murray-Darling Basin, then we have done a grave disservice to our community.

Senator WORTLEY —What do you believe needs to happen in South Australia in order for local communities to get a better understanding of the issues and of the tough decisions that may need to be made?

Mayor McHugh —I have said a couple of times that I think that the community is very aware of how complex this issue is and that to fix this problem will not be easy. Of course, they need up-to-date information and it would be good for them to hear the outcome from this inquiry as soon as possible.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I do not care who answers this, but what is the guaranteed allocation to South Australia this year?

Mr Strother —Six hundred and fifty.

Senator HEFFERNAN —And we need how much to fix the problem?

Mr Strother —Another—

Senator HEFFERNAN —No, forget about the 650. What fixes the problem? About 800 all up?

Mr Strother —We need another 400 gigalitres into the lakes over the summer period.

Senator HEFFERNAN —What comes over the border guaranteed?

Mr Strother —Six hundred and fifty.

Senator HEFFERNAN —That will be used by irrigators. What is the allocation this year for your irrigators?

Mr Strother —Six per cent.

Senator HEFFERNAN —How much would you finish with by the time it got down to you?

Mr Strother —There are 350 gigalitres going to flow into the lakes. That is guaranteed.

Senator HEFFERNAN —If the government used emergency powers to reallocate the water, they would take the six per cent off the irrigators, and that would give them 650 out of 700 that they need. That would be pretty drastic, I have to say. We have not had an allocation up our way for four years.

Mr Strother —Yes, I understand that, but I do not think even taking that six per cent away would solve the problem.

Senator HEFFERNAN —No, I am not saying it would. It would be a pretty doomsday sort of scenario. We are facing a doomsday scenario all the way up the river.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —We have heard today from a number of people from the local community, so your constituents, who have raised concerns about a lack of consultation from state and federal governments in terms of measures that have been put in place. The one that comes to mind immediately is the pumping of water from one lake to the other which is going on, and I will put on record that that is something that I do support. I think that it is solving a lot of problems in the short term. That was used as an example of people from the local community saying, ‘We didn’t know about it.’

How much interaction do you feel you have had and how have you been heard by both state and federal governments in trying to raise this issue and explain to people that this is a disastrous situation that we are seeing? I think these photos are pretty powerful in terms of showing people how far things have come in two years. How do you feel you have been received so far?

Mayor McHugh —I think to a degree the communities around the Lower Lakes think that they have been deserted by governments, in that they feel that they are carrying the burden of the whole river system. That is probably a bit over the top, but I think there could have been some more consultation. What has happened in the past is one thing. What they want to know now is how the federal government is going to fix this system up. That is probably more important to them.

Mr Strother —My answer is that we have had very little consultation. For instance, with the bunding between Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert, our council was told about it just before it was built. We were not consulted or asked whether we thought it was a good idea. We heard about the proposed weir through the media. Any salt or other incursions we are hearing about through the media. We are not being directed by our local ministers, and I personally have had a crack at them about that. No, we are not being consulted at all. We are being told just before an event happens.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —That was the consensus of other people as well. Going into the future—and let’s not dwell on the past, as Kym McHugh says—have your councils done any kind of economic impact study on what will happen over the next six to 12 months in relation to your local communities if we do not get the fresh water we need?

Mayor McHugh —We definitely have, and our economic development boards have, too. Between Goolwa and Wellington, there is a $100 million a year boating-tourism industry. We have within our council area some 8,000 hectares of vines, which on average is about an $800 million a year industry. They cannot use water at the moment. Even though they have a six per cent allocation, they cannot use it. It is too salty. They have not been able to use water around the lakes and around Hindmarsh Island for a couple of years now for stock or domestic. The dairy farms that Roger will tell you about did not sell their cows because they could not irrigate pasture for them; they had to sell them because they cannot live on salt water.

Senator HEFFERNAN —It is a pity they cannot turn wine into water!

Mayor McHugh —Yes, exactly. It has a major economic impact, but I think our community is as worried about the environmental impact. Of course, you put those two together and you have a major social impact on families and communities.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —Do you think that members of the local community there—and this goes back to a question that Senator Wortley asked—have become so much more aware of the environmental impacts and the significance of them because they can see for themselves what is going on?

Mayor McHugh —I guess they were always aware, to a degree, living with that environment, but the fact that it is under threat—and, even worse, that it could turn acid or somebody may let salt water into it—yes, they are very aware of it and are very concerned.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —What is the general consensus in both your local council areas to flooding the lakes with salt water?

Mayor McHugh —No go. We are not happy with that idea at all and we will resist that right up until the end.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —Have you heard anything in relation to any organisation or government department doing any type of risk assessment of flooding the lakes with salt water and, in particular, what that may mean for the groundwater of your regions?

Mayor McHugh —No.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —That is something that is quite concerning.

Mr Strother —I have. I was told by a department person that their plan was to pulse water through the Goolwa Channel into Lake Alexandrina and continue the pumping into Lake Albert—not to make the water completely saline but to try and mix water.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Was there a plan not to put a negative head on the groundwater, though?

Mr Strother —No, I have heard no plans about the groundwater. I will add that in my council area particularly, around the lakes, most of the groundwater that is accessible is already too saline to be used for stock or domestic or any other use.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —So contaminating that further is going to be—

Mr Strother —To give you an idea, I dug a well on the farm that I used to own and the salinity was 48,000 EC units. Sea water is 32, I believe.

Mayor McHugh —That is not the case around Lake Alexandrina. There is still some good water in the Langhorne Creek area; not pristine water, but useable water.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —In terms of the objective of getting fresh water into the lakes, which you have both clearly expressed is the preference, do you think there are storages or wetland areas within South Australia that could be tapped?

Mayor McHugh —I think there is an opportunity to manage the whole river and lake systems in a different way. What we have traditionally done is kept the weir pools full and tried to keep the lakes full. We do not need to have them full. The natural system saw them rise and fall, saw the wetlands dry out and then be wetted again. That is the healthiest system for them. We hear that it is going to take 1,000 gigalitres or something to fill up the lake. The lake does not need filling up. It needs bringing to a level that will stop it from going acid and to get it through this next summer.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Mayor McHugh and Mayor Strother, in your opinion, what is that level, from the advice that your councils have been given?

Mayor McHugh —Probably about 0.3 or 0.4 of a metre AHD.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Positive?

Mayor McHugh —Yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN —So if we do not get snow melt and there is not water, should we pump that four times saltier water out to sea and should we then use chemical—lime or something—to help?

Mayor McHugh —There is no water in the lakes at the moment that—

Senator HEFFERNAN —We were told this morning there is water in the Coorong—

Mayor McHugh —There is groundwater in certain areas. There is no water in the lakes.

Senator HEFFERNAN —But we were told there is water in the Coorong that is four times the level of salt of the sea. Should that be pumped out?

Mr Strother —No. Out into the ocean, certainly, but not into the Coorong.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Yes, I meant out into—

Mr Strother —I think David Paton suggested a plan of putting pumps down at the southern end of the Coorong and pumping something like 40 gigalitres out into the ocean. That is not a bad plan because it will freshen up the Coorong itself.

Senator HEFFERNAN —If the worst comes to the worst, should we be saying, ‘Let’s put enough lime into the system there.’ We do it at home.

Mr Strother —I understand where you are coming from but I do not think lime is the answer. Revegetating the lake, as was suggested earlier, would be a better option.

Senator HEFFERNAN —How far above sea level is the bottom end of the system? How much has the sea got to come up before it will come in anyhow?

Mayor McHugh —The lakes are below sea level at the moment.

Senator HEFFERNAN —But the barrages there—

Mr Strother —I think the barrages are only set about half a metre above sea level.

CHAIR —Mayor Strother, just so I am clear, you may well have already answered it, and I know Mayor McHugh’s position on pumping sea water into the lakes and the Coorong: what is your council’s view?

Mr Strother —We are probably stronger than even the Alexandrina Council because our main lake, as you understand, is Lake Albert. Our understanding is that, if you pump sea water into that, it would become so saline that there would not be any life in the water at all, because if you pump water into it, you cannot get it out again. It will continually evaporate and become more saline. We would have an issue because it would be like the Dead Sea.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Does that mean we need a chemical solution, like a lime solution, because it goes dry?

Mr Strother —Sorry?

Senator HEFFERNAN —That leaves no other alternative, if there is no fresh water, but to do some sort of revegetation.

Mr Strother —You are right, yes. There are only two options: one is the fresh water and the other is major revegetation. Maybe there is some opportunity for liming as well.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Has anyone costed that? How many hectares are we talking about?

Mr Strother —One hundred thousand hectares or something like that. I am not sure whether that is in both lakes or just the one lake.

Senator HEFFERNAN —One hundred thousand hectares, is it?

Mr Strother —It is a lot of hectares.

Senator HEFFERNAN —On the form we have here it has 20,000 hectares.

Mr Strother —No.

Senator HEFFERNAN —That is the salt configuration, from the CSIRO. That is near enough to 20,000 hectares.

Mayor McHugh —I am sure you guys can find out that sort of technical stuff.

Mr Strother —The whole lake system is 900 square kilometres, I believe.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —Can I just get you to reiterate something you said at the beginning. What was the time frame that you are thinking you would need to get fresh water in there by? How long can we wait? I know we have had some rainfall. I visited the lakes in March and I went back three weeks ago and there is a considerable difference just in that time that I can physically see, let alone the stuff I cannot see. So what is the time frame from your perspective?

Mayor McHugh —Since winter started, the lakes have improved from a bit worse than minus 0.5 to minus 0.28 or something at the moment, with the local streams that have put water in and the rain and that sort of thing, so the situation is not as critical as it was but as soon as we head into summer, they will decline further. Where we are starting from is worse than it was last year. What they are saying is that, come the end of January, early February, they will be getting close to that level where they could well turn acid. The latest prediction is that that will be at about minus one metre.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —So we would need to make sure we know there is water secured by Christmas.

Mayor McHugh —Yes, or early next year.

Senator HEFFERNAN —If the present dry goes on for another couple of years, which is predicted, what would be the solution? The great question for farmers in the last four of five years has been, ‘Is this a drought or is this the way it’s going to be?’

Mayor McHugh —Yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN —And, ‘If it goes for another couple of years, what the hell are we going to do?’

Mr Strother —Our position is that we are going to stage it year by year. We now know that we can survive until February. If we can get enough water to see us through to winter, we will see this current season out. Then we will probably have to start this process all over again to survive the next winter.

Senator HEFFERNAN —For the decision maker, you have to take the sovereign risk on no rain next year and then whether you put at risk the human factor, the top priority of Senator Fisher, however described. It is a big question.

Senator XENOPHON —Mayor McHugh, a few months ago the local tourism and boating industry had an alternative proposal if you could not get fresh water into the lakes, which I know is the preferred solution, of getting fresh water into the Goolwa Channel. What is your current view of that proposal? What has happened with that, and is that feasible in the scheme of things?

Mayor McHugh —That is a very local proposal to support the boating industry and the businesses that rely on that boating industry basically within the Goolwa area. My understanding is that the technical group of the state government are doing and have done a lot of work on that. We are waiting to see what they come up with, whether it is feasible, what effects it would have on the environment; but we support our boating industry.

One of the biggest problems with the boating industry is that, because the water level in that area now is below sea level, they cannot operate the lock in the Goolwa Barrage. While there is still good boating down in the Coorong area, the boats cannot access that area so it is having a major effect on our boating industry, our marinas and other businesses that support that industry.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —That report from the state government appears to have been imminent for some weeks now. Do you have any idea when it may actually be made available?

Mayor McHugh —We have called on the state government to make that report available to our community at the earliest possible time and we have not seen it at this stage.

CHAIR —Thank you very much, Mayor McHugh and Mayor Strother. Unfortunately, we have run out of time—we have gone over—but we do thank both of you for making the effort to come here.

[4.05 pm]