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Management of the Murray-Darling Basin system

CHAIR —Welcome. I am told on good authority, Professor Kingsford, that you really are an expert on environmental science. We have one hour. Before we go to questions, and there will be a lot of questions, I invite you, if you wish, to make a brief opening statement.

Prof. Kingsford —I guess I will just give you a little background. I have had more than 20 years of research working on Australian rivers and wetlands and more than 100 publications and three books. The rivers I have worked on in the Murray-Darling are the Paroo, the Macquarie, the Murrumbidgee, the Darling, the Condamine-Balonne and the Border rivers. I have also done a lot of work in central Australia on the Cooper Creek and Georgina-Diamantina. I have written and researched a lot about the impacts of river regulation on wetlands and rivers and their communities. I have also served within and outside government on a number of committees relevant to river management. Past committees include the Border Rivers catchment ministerial committee, the Lake Eyre Basin Community Advisory Committee and the New South Wales water reform committee. I was also one of the independent experts on the River Murray expert panel. I am currently on a number of committees, including the stakeholder consultative committee for the federal government’s buyback program. I am also on the riverbank committee for the New South Wales government and its buyback of water. I am also on the scientific advisory panel for the Lake Eyre Basin. I also wear a number of hats in terms of being on editorial boards of scientific journals and various members of society. Thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you, Professor Kingsford. I have to ask whether there is any board you are not on.

Senator HEFFERNAN —He has not done the Lachlan. I want him to do the Lachlan.

CHAIR —On that, Professor Kingsford, before I do go on, I owe an apology for Senator Heffernan’s shirt once again. Anyway, we will go to questions.

Senator SIEWERT —Professor, I have a range of questions, so if I get—

Prof. Kingsford —Can you all call me Richard? I prefer to be called Richard. Thank you.

Senator SIEWERT —I will start with the Paroo and the comments that you have made recently about it. Representatives from the Queensland government gave evidence here in our hearing a couple of weeks ago which disputed your evidence. Could you briefly go into what you found in the Paroo. I am also interested in your thoughts about whether it would be relevant to take further the survey you did.

Prof. Kingsford —Sure. I think our work was described as an honest mistake by the Premier of Queensland. We essentially looked at a development on the Paroo that, in terms of building storage, has happened since the signing of the Paroo River agreement and the implementation of the water resource plan. We examined that with very high resolution satellite imagery. It was less than a metre resolution. Up to fairly recently, that has only been available to defence forces and intelligence but is now publicly available. Essentially, we also looked at all of the available satellite imagery and aerial photography for that area right back to 1969. What is quite clear is that there was a levy bank there in 1969 but there also have been a number of new storages built and channels to take water from that area to two pivot irrigation areas. I think the critical issue here is that Queensland has determined that because there is a levy bank across the floodplain, that means it can be defined as a storage. Once it becomes defined as a storage, they have then converted that water backed up behind there into an overland flow allocation.

They have argued, and I have also argued with them subsequently, that there is an issue here. They argue that they cannot allow further take from that river system. The Director-General of the Department of Natural Resources and Water cannot allow further take. I have argued that because they are defining it as a storage and the water is now being taken from the floodplain and put into an irrigation area, it must be a take. This is where the dispute lies in relation to whether or not there was any take there in 1969 or before the water resource plans.

There does seem no evidence that there was water being taken out of that storage area onto terrestrial areas, although there was some clearing around there. I still think, because the allocation is more than 10,000 megalitres and the Paroo, I think, has only about 100 megalitres of irrigation water currently, it is a significant amount of water in that river system.

CHAIR —Can the Paroo affect the Lower Lakes? Has the Paroo affected them?

Prof. Kingsford —No. The Paroo needs a really big flood to get into the Darling.

Senator HEFFERNAN —In 1956.

Prof. Kingsford —Yes. In 1990 it made it through. So not so much water gets in there. But it will come in. This big flood that we have had now has not made it down to the Darling. There are a million hectares of floodplain that it will inundate first.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Beautiful property.

Prof. Kingsford —So it has come to your second question, which is about technology. I certainly think we have the technology. The issue is that some of that technology is only available after 1999. This is the one metre resolution. I think one of the issues is that no-one really has looked at the structures in a rigorous way and looked at when they have been put in place over time. We did some of that on the Macquarie, but there has been very little of that anywhere in the northern basins.

Senator SIEWERT —Thank you for that. Yesterday when we had the New South Wales government here, they were starting to tell us about the structures in the Macquarie and what is licensed and unlicensed. They had not finished that work. What is your estimation in terms of licensed and unlicensed structures across that northern area?

Prof. Kingsford —Look, I think this is such a grey area that it is really not clear what is legal and what is illegal. I will just talk about the Macquarie, if you do not mind, because that is where we have some data. I think in about the mid-1980s a sort of random line was drawn around the northern part of the Macquarie Marshes. It was then defined as a designated floodplain. Once you become a designated floodplain, you are supposed to then go through the EP&A Act and look at environmental impacts. But that was only the northern part of the Macquarie Marshes floodplain. It meant that in the southern part there were very few regulations about what could and could not be done there.

However, the New South Wales government over a number of years has produced these floodway guidelines for all their rivers. Essentially, these are recognition around about the late 1970s and early 1980s that there was too much development on the floodplain. They identified floodways that would allow uninterrupted water to go down to lower parts of the river system. We examined them on the Macquarie, where they have these areas. I will just check my notes. We identified 101 kilometres of levies and 368 kilometres of channels that had been built within the floodways. That does not count the ones outside the floodways. But because the floodways were only guidelines, there was no critical regulation or compliance and, as far as I am aware, no legal framework that would allow you to say whether they were licensed or unlicensed.

Senator SIEWERT —So these were built after the floodways were designated?

Prof. Kingsford —Yes.

Senator SIEWERT —So when did you do that survey?

Prof. Kingsford —I think last year we did that survey. From Warren up to Kurinda we looked at the number of levy banks, channels and earthworks generally in that floodplain.

Senator SIEWERT —I am going back a number of years, where we have had different inquiries through estimates et cetera. When New South Wales say they are not legal and they are not illegal, these are the structures we are talking about?

Prof. Kingsford —Yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN —These are the structures that, when they send some water down for Ramsar, for the wetland, intercept that?

Prof. Kingsford —There is one classic example, where there is a floodway that has a channel going horizontally across it. In November 2005, there was clearly an environmental flow ordered by the Ramsar site.

Senator SIEWERT —Is this the Gwydir one or—

Prof. Kingsford —No. This is the Macquarie.

Senator SIEWERT —This is the Macquarie Marshes.

Prof. Kingsford —There were no other irrigation orders for that water. The water essentially went down, obviously hit the channel and that channel took that water straight into an off-river storage.

Senator HEFFERNAN —And there is a similar one on the Gwydir too?

Prof. Kingsford —Yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN —There is one on the Gwydir the same.

Senator SIEWERT —Yes.

Prof. Kingsford —There are a number around, yes.

CHAIR —I am sorry to cut in, but Senator Milne, Senator O’Brien and I were out at Warren on Friday for a field trip. We met a lot of people out there and we looked at the Macquarie. We asked about the health of the Macquarie and all that. What they clearly told us up there was that flows from the Macquarie will not assist the Darling.

Senator HEFFERNAN —That is right.

Prof. Kingsford —About 10 per cent of flows from the Macquarie get through to the Darling.

CHAIR —That is if there is a massive flood on the Macquarie, yes. Wetlands, I think it was, on the Macquarie Marshes?

Prof. Kingsford —Well, what has happened on the Macquarie is that essentially at one point a bypass channel was built for 20-odd kilometres that made it more efficient for water to get down to the lower Macquarie and then on to the Darling.

CHAIR —But it would take a massive flow of water?

Prof. Kingsford —But it is assisted by a massive flood, yes.

CHAIR —Thank you.

Senator SIEWERT —I know Senator Hanson-Young will want to ask a question in a minute. I am keen to know what scale of water we are talking about that is or could be diverted through these structures that is not regulated in terms of legal regulation rather than a regulated channel. What scale of water are we talking about that is not actually properly being regulated?

Prof. Kingsford —It is a good question. I think one way of measuring that—this is the way the New South Wales government is trying to approach it—is to look at the storage capacity of all the off-river storages. You can potentially fill an off-river storage and empty it again so you would not be able to pick up the double-take. There are also potentially structures that do not divert water into storage. They divert water elsewhere into agricultural land. You would not measure that. At one point, the New South Wales government, when the Water Management Act came in, had a policy where they were going to potentially put in second-lift pumps. In other words, on a particular off-river storage, you would have another pump with a meter on it which would allow you to measure how much water went into that storage.

Senator HEFFERNAN —How much water was in that order they sent down that disappeared?

Prof. Kingsford —The 2005 one?

Senator HEFFERNAN —I have forgotten now.

Prof. Kingsford —I cannot remember.

Senator HEFFERNAN —It was a reasonable amount of water.

Prof. Kingsford —Yes, it was.

Senator HEFFERNAN —It was many thousands of megs.

Prof. Kingsford —Yes, it was. It was, yes.

Senator SIEWERT —So the point is here we do not actually know how much water is being held in off-river storages or is actually being diverted through these neither legal nor illegal structures?

Prof. Kingsford —I am not aware of any.

Senator HEFFERNAN —The other part is the Ramsar site down below on these smaller banks that actually create the artificial flood for one of the companies that has been in the news lately selling properties. It is one of the properties that is up to silly buggers down there.

Prof. Kingsford —So, just to clarify, there are a number of structures within the irrigation areas which are primarily designed to not only essentially move water efficiently around the irrigation area but also protect some of those irrigation areas from floods. That is certainly an issue that I think is going to become more and more one. The water is going to move in all sorts of different directions that it was not supposed to move in. As well, over a number of years on all our inland river systems, there have been various levy banks constructed to hold water back to increase grazing capacity. That has happened over 100-odd years. That is one of the issues about the Paroo. If Queensland is interpreting any levy bank as a storage, it means potentially you could add a whole lot more irrigation allocation, if you like, in a particular river system that you never actually thought would be the case, yes.

Senator SIEWERT —So, in your opinion—this is a two-part question—was there water in that northern section that could have made it down? I am now talking about timescale. If a decision had been made earlier in the year, was there water there when the system was wetter? Is there water there now?

Prof. Kingsford —If you had stopped access to that water, there would have been more water coming down the Condamine-Balonne, which is one of the main areas. That flood that happened earlier this year was essentially a western or north-western flood. So there was water coming down the Warrego and there was water coming down the Paroo and, I might say, the Bulloo, which is a western river that has its own catchment, and the Cooper. So all of the big floods that we saw going out to the coast and affecting communities out there had a Great Dividing Range dump on the western side that allowed those western rivers to run. The most western and the biggest contributor to the Darling was the Condamine-Balonne, which is the one that obviously runs down to Narran Lake and down to the Darling. I think that in modelling years contributes maybe 20 per cent of the flows to the Darling or around that. So if you had hypothetically switched off the irrigation on that system, probably more flows would have made their way into the Darling. But understand that these systems are primarily floodplain systems, so most of the water that is actually caught for irrigation is actually denying the floodplain that the irrigation is on of that water rather than impacting on the main stem of the river systems.

Senator SIEWERT —Thanks.

CHAIR —You were talking about the Macquarie Marshes. There was an acquisition by the Commonwealth and New South Wales governments. Do you wish to make any comment about that?

Prof. Kingsford —The Pillicawarrina was an irrigation area for cotton—

CHAIR —I am sorry, Professor Kingsford. We have some senators trying to join us by teleconference. Is anyone out there?

Senator XENOPHON —Yes. I am here. It is Nick Xenophon here.

CHAIR —Senator Xenophon, welcome. We have Professor Kingsford. Sorry, Professor Kingsford, carry on.

Prof. Kingsford —So to answer your question, Pillicawarrina was a major part of the Macquarie Marshes. It had one of the most important bird breeding sites before the vegetation was laser levelled. It was made into a cotton area. I think that happened in the 1970s and 1980s. So there are, I guess, two important parts of that acquisition. One is the increased water that can be an environmental flow. The second is the opportunity to rehabilitate that area so that it is also perhaps back to what it was originally—part of the Greater Macquarie Marshes.

CHAIR —Thank you, Professor Kingsford. Senator Xenophon, we have all agreed around the table that Professor Kingsford is probably one of the experts on the Murray-Darling Basin.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —We heard yesterday from the New South Wales environment department that, of the water being held currently in Menindee Lakes, they needed all of it for human critical needs in a variety of different areas. If water were to be released from Menindee Lakes to send down to the Lower Lakes and the Coorong over the next few months in order to try to avert the crisis that is unfolding down there, do you think that there is water available upstream to be redirected to Menindee Lakes to alleviate those concerns?

Prof. Kingsford —I am aware there is water in storage at Bourke and there is water in storage on the Condamine-Balonne and probably up in the Border Rivers. I am not quite aware of what their storage capacities are up there. I guess the critical issue is how much you lose in transmission losses on the Darling. Quite a lot goes because it is such a dry river system at the moment. Obviously once the water gets to around Menindee, you have that string of lakes, most of which are now currently dry. Either you would send it further downstream or you actually put it into the lakes. Potentially you could put some more water into the Menindee Lakes, but there is not a lot of water, I would imagine, that would come in for that. I am not a hydrologist, so I am not sure of the quantities.

I think the Menindee Lakes issue is an interesting one in that we need to be careful that we are not robbing Peter to pay Paul. There are issues about trying to move water very efficiently through that system. But that could impact on the ecology of Kinchega National Park, particularly large channels that have been considered for doing that. I think ecologically Kinchega National Park and Menindee Lakes are very important from a wetland point of view and for water birds and fish and so on. They have been dry for some time as a result of less water coming to them from upstream in the same way as the Lower Lakes are feeling that pressure.

CHAIR —I am sorry, Senator Hanson-Young. I do have other senators. If there is some time left, I will come back to you.

Senator HUTCHINS —I am interested in that line of questioning and the robbing Peter to pay Paul argument. A number of senators seem to get parochial about it. I wonder if you could outline for us other environmental priorities that we should be aware of in that whole Murray-Darling Basin. All we are talking about is the Lower Lakes and Coorong. I thought it was very apt what you just said then about the Menindee Lakes and how important it is to the ecology as well.

Prof. Kingsford —Think of all the river basins internally within the Murray-Darling. Most of them have a major wetland at the end of them. The Border Rivers used to have magnificent wetlands. I think they do not any more. Obviously the Gwydir used to have an important wetland system and then the Namoi less so. The Macquarie obviously has the Macquarie Marshes. The Darling has its own wetland system when the water gets up, the Menindee probably being the key one. There is a string of lakes there that are very important. The Lachlan has both the Cumbung Swamp right at the bottom and the Booligal wetlands, which is an offshoot that heads west. Then, of course, you get to the Murrumbidgee, and it has this magnificent wetland that was once near Balranald called the Lowbidgee. The River Murray obviously has all of the icon sites of Barmah and Chowilla Forest et cetera. From the north, obviously, the Condamine-Balonne has Narran Lakes and the Lower Balonne system and Culgoa National Park. If you go further west, the Warrego has the Cuttaburra and the Paroo overflow and Currawinya Lakes.

So, if you like, there are as many jewels on the Lower Lakes on other river systems from an environment point of view that are probably every bit as important but have not had the attention. They may be in just as bad a state as the Lower Coorong. Certainly we know places like the Gwydir and the Macquarie Marshes and the Lowbidgee, if you go to the Paroo and the Warrego, are in the peak of health because essentially they are still getting their full water complement.

Senator HUTCHINS —So it is sort of simplistic to suggest that you drain the Menindee and there will not be any other ecological disaster occur?

Prof. Kingsford —Yes, it is.

Senator HUTCHINS —Or in any of those other wetlands up in New South Wales or, I imagine, Queensland as well?

Prof. Kingsford —Yes. There is the royal commission of the early 1900s. You can go back to some of those places and actually find how often that would fill naturally. There would be water in those lakes 20 out of 30 years. That is from a local farmer who lived there who described what would happen there. I guess the argument has been that we need to get the water out of those lakes as quickly as possible to make sure that it gets into the Lower Murray. But in actual fact there is a whole ecology around those lakes. We have surveyed Menindee Lakes and found up to 70,000 or 80,000 water birds. They have been badly affected by being used as storages for water, so water has been kept artificially high. There is an opportunity there to change their flow rating so they have more of a wetting and drying phase. A lot of the trees and so on have been killed. They have certainly got less diversity now with their water levels kept artificially high.

Senator SIEWERT —I do not want to take your time. Could you ask how we could do that?

Senator HUTCHINS —Sure. How could we do that?

Prof. Kingsford —We could actually do it by looking at this whole system ecologically instead of hydrologically. The problem is that all of the focus has involved hydrologists trying to essentially get the water out as quickly as possible. So there are issues about building channels into the lake and pumping out the residual water. The most important water for these systems is as it gradually dries out. If we actually took a proper ecological assessment of that area, I think we could save some water but also maintain its ecological integrity—in fact, rehabilitate it. I have argued that, but essentially those arguments have not really been taken up.

Senator HUTCHINS —We are confronted with in this inquiry—I do not know how to say it—the impact of climate change and other factors, which will reduce the water available in that whole system. I do not know if I am putting you on the spot, but what do you see as the long-term prescription for managing the conservation values of those wetlands and, in particular, the Lower Lakes? I was with a fellow the other night who was telling me that there was salt water in the Lower Lakes until the 1930s. I was talking to another fellow. He said there were reports that there used to be sharks up to Murray Bridge. I wonder if you could comment, Richard?

Prof. Kingsford —I am not an expert on the Lower Lakes, but they would have been an estuarine system and they would have been connected. So they would have had periods of high salinity and marine creatures going up and down. But that would have been changed, like most free-flowing rivers that go out to sea, when a big flood came down. It would have changed into more of a freshwater system. So it would have bounced backwards and forwards.

To answer your big question, which is where are we going to be in terms of managing these systems, essentially, I think, we have to define out what we have lost and what we cannot manage for. That involves understanding and modelling flows, understanding how these ecosystems work, how much water red gums need and fish and water birds and then essentially saying, ‘We aren’t ever going to be able to, and nor would we want to—it would be economically and socially irresponsible—turn this system back to before we developed it.’ But I do see an opportunity to get a much better outcome for our conservation assets, if you like, by better targeted environmental flows, better management of the environmental flows, and putting as much water as we can back to those systems. I seriously think that we are starting clearly to understand in the community the impacts of river regulation on the Lower Murray lakes. The impacts on places like the Macquarie Marshes are going to be just as devastating. We are seeing large areas of hundred-year-old red gums just dying as a result of not getting water.

So it will be a big challenge to try to work out how much water we have for these systems. Essentially, we will have to manage those. Wherever we can possibly squirrel away more water through water efficiencies, we should try and retire that back to those river systems and manage that water and be very careful about auditing where all the water goes so that we know clearly how much water is going to the environment and how much is going for extraction and people clearly know their rights and responsibilities. I would like to see some opportunities for conservation groups and people in the city to start potentially buying water that is good for the environment. I certainly would like to see viable irrigation communities in these systems as well, but much more efficient ones than we currently have.

Senator HUTCHINS —I think you summed it up well when you said you have to be conscious of not robbing Peter to pay Paul. I am not sure that we have had the exposure of how ecologically important some of these other places are in New South Wales. So simplistic solutions of just releasing water here is going to have an impact significantly somewhere else.

Prof. Kingsford —Yes. That is right.

Senator HUTCHINS —That is all I have.

CHAIR —Before I go to Senator Adams, I want to reiterate that the subcommittee went to Warren. What we did, Professor Kingsford—it is not your line of expertise, obviously—is check out pasture cropping and how it was retaining water in the soil as well. But the locals in Warren went out of their way, when asked about the Macquarie River, to say it is very healthy. Their water supply is very healthy. Do you have any comment there?

Prof. Kingsford —It depends what you mean by healthy.

CHAIR —Okay. There is plenty of water and they have said that it is higher than what it has been for the last seven or eight years, even though they have been in drought.

Prof. Kingsford —People generally define a river by what is flowing in the main channel. So in a lot of these systems, there will be water flowing down the main channel and it will look healthy. The water quality may be very good, particularly if you are at Warren. That is where most of the water comes down the main channel. The bigger impacts occur downstream of Warren. If you like, what happened when we put in our dams is that we captured a lot of the flows that would go into places like the Macquarie Marshes and the Lower Lakes. It allowed us, then, to divert that water for irrigation and for our towns. A lot of those irrigation areas are upstream of the major conservation assets. It meant that a lot of the water that would normally go down into the Macquarie Marshes and the Lower Lakes obviously is now being diverted out for irrigation.

There is also an argument, which the irrigation industry will put, that the rivers are healthy and essentially there is little evidence for them not being so. There is a lot of scientific evidence that would say otherwise.

CHAIR —I have one last question. Are you aware of what has happened at Barren Box Swamp on the Murrumbidgee?

Prof. Kingsford —Yes.

CHAIR —Would you like to make a brief comment on that?

Prof. Kingsford —Yes. I have been to Barren Box or there since the early 1980s. Barren Box Swamp, for people who do not know, was used as a sort of drainage basin for waste water in an irrigation area. It would have naturally flooded and dried. So it had issues of having, like Menindee, too much water too often. Essentially it had Cumbungi and it killed quite a lot of the floodplain trees. Because it has been divided in half, I think there is obviously some opportunity there to manage some of it as a wetland and save water elsewhere. I am not sure of what the evidence is of how good that process has been ecologically because you have essentially potentially halved the ecosystem.

CHAIR —Do you think that might be or could be a solution for Menindee?

Prof. Kingsford —Well, that is certainly one of the solutions that is being put forward. But the issue would be that you would lose potentially half of your wetland. I would think a better solution would be to manage the water levels better so that you try and have natural drying patterns in Menindee. You get the water out, but not all of it, which is currently what is on the table, I think.

CHAIR —Thank you, Professor. Senator Adams did want to ask a question and Senator Heffernan wants some time too.

Senator ADAMS —I will let Senator Heffernan ask his.

Senator HEFFERNAN —By the way, Barren Box obviously supplies stock and domestic at the Wah Wah scheme. I am very familiar with that. Professor, there are a few things we want to get on the record. Are you familiar with the purchase of the property that was Elliott’s—that rice property over the border?

Prof. Kingsford —I am not. I am sorry, I am not familiar with that work.

Senator HEFFERNAN —With the Gwydir and that very clever bank that is allegedly a channel but it is actually an overland water harvest given the height of the banks, is it legal?

Prof. Kingsford —It would depend whether the Gwydir was a designated floodplain or not. I would suspect that it is not a designated floodplain. So it may well be that it is not illegal. I think the area of managing rivers is very, very poor in Australia on the floodplain.

Senator HEFFERNAN —It certainly is.

Prof. Kingsford —There is very little policy development and very little legislation that actually helps.

Senator HEFFERNAN —We think it is red hot. It is the same with the set-up on the Paroo. The development that is occurring there now is by the bloke from South Australia, is it not?

Prof. Kingsford —No. On the Paroo, it is a local up near Eulo.

Senator HEFFERNAN —There has been recent speculation and revaluation of a place like Cubbie. You have had a lot to do with the downstream. Could you tell us the size of the floodplain that is associated with the Lower Balonne?

Prof. Kingsford —I will just check. I have that figure here. We mapped all the wetlands in the Murray-Darling Basin a few years ago using satellite imagery, so we have that figure here.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I think it would be interesting.

Prof. Kingsford —I will tell you in a minute.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Can you table that?

Prof. Kingsford —I can, yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Just have a quick look and give us a snapshot.

Prof. Kingsford —I have it here. It is 1.4 million hectares.

Senator HEFFERNAN —So that is 3½ million acres, roughly, or thereabouts?

Prof. Kingsford —It is a very sizeable area. In fact, it is the largest floodplain area—

Senator HEFFERNAN —It is.

Prof. Kingsford —in the Murray-Darling Basin, or was.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I am very familiar with it. The works that occurred on the Lower Balonne have absolutely destroyed the integrity of that floodplain. That would be fair to say, would it not?

Prof. Kingsford —I think over the next 50 years we will see colossal economic damage as a result of that. We are starting to see that now with a lot of trees that are starting to die. We will see that in terms of understanding places like Narran Lakes and their long-term viability in terms of water bird populations and all of those things.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Given all of that and given the water resource plan that was done some years ago for the Condamine-Balonne and the extraction—I think there is 1,500 gigs of off-river storage and the mean flow is 1,200—how much sense does it make that, knowing all that and knowing what you just said, the Queensland government would now be giving consideration under the ROC, which is built on the water resource plan? It did not have any environmental science applied to it. It was just rubbish. You would agree with that, would you not?

Prof. Kingsford —Well, I think the original water resource plan had a technical panel and actually had some useful information in it. But then the process that followed that was not very clear in terms of the modelling.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Well, it is a bit like the vagary of the Paroo. There were big bulldozers, and they gave them authorisation. After the event, they said, ‘Oops have a look at that. We’d better authorise that now it has been done.’ So now, to defy any sort of human logic, they are proposing to convert those authorisations into water licences knowing the system is absolutely beyond repair with the present capacity to extract water. Have you got a comment that you would like to make about how silly it is to go ahead and issue licences in the full knowledge, by the way—it has added a couple of hundred million to the potential value of a place like Cubbie—that we will then buy it back and somehow return the water to the system? One, we have a three-million acre floodplain to fill up, which has been absolutely extinguished in the meantime. Two, because it is a unique system, when the floodplain eventually does fill up in a huge event, the water will actually return to the rivers in that system as opposed to going out over the horizon. With regard to the use of taxpayers’ money, how sensible is it for the government to actually issue a whole range of financial instruments by way of converting authorisations to licences and then propose to buy them back? Could you make some commentary on that?

Prof. Kingsford —Look, I cannot actually understand why governments still make decisions. We are living here. This whole process is a result of decisions that were made maybe 10 or 15 years ago by water agencies primarily. They have driven a process which means that subsequent generations have to pick up the tab. Now it is fundamentally going to happen in the Condamine-Balonne that in 20 or 30 years, when Narran Lakes is almost completely dried out and a lot of the vegetation—it is a Ramsar site—the Australian government will be further embarrassed because it is not managing it properly. We will be losing a lot of those floodplain areas. There will be an outcry and governments will have to do something about it. A lot of the people in charge know these things are happening but are not doing anything about it.

I think there is a serious issue where conservation agencies within governments are not strong enough and are not being vocal enough about the long-term impacts. We are hearing nothing that I am aware of from the Queensland government about its responsibilities for Culgoa National Park, which is a floodplain national park, that will be impacted in the water resource plan and the resource operations plan. There should be strong internal government discussions about the long-term future of these areas.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I have been obviously in discussions with the Queensland government, this government and the previous government about this because I actually think it is sort of fraud by the Commonwealth to do what they are proposing to do. I have not had anyone who has disagreed with me in any government, but they all say, ‘Bill, what are we going to do about it?’ Should we not redraw the plan of the valley to some sort of a sustainable level and not issue licences that we know are actually being utilised now? The bulk of the water that comes out of there now is unmetered, unregulated and free. It is authorised. To convert that into a financial instrument that is compensatable I think is a curiosity. I think it does not stand closer inspection. Should we not redraw the plans and put a halt to the implementation of the ROC?

Prof. Kingsford —I think one of the problems with this is that we are privatising gains and socialising the costs. Fundamentally that is going to happen more and more. We are having major social dislocation in those areas because the people downstream have lost their livelihood with the floods.

Senator HEFFERNAN —They certainly have. So are you out there in government? Are you listening? Hello, Scott Spencer in Queensland.

Prof. Kingsford —I would like to see a little more forthrightness and strength in terms of actually looking at long-term sustainability in that catchment. My discussions with various Queenslanders indicate that that agency is a bit gun shy of strong decisions because of various court cases that have gone on and that they have lost. I think they were poorly advised in those court cases and did not necessarily think hard about it. As a result of that, they do not seem to be making very strong decisions. There is also a cultural issue. There is a strong development culture—has been for a long time—in Queensland and New South Wales. It has been an issue about how you get those people to give the advice that is useful for governments.

There is one other point I would like to make. Because this area is full of jargon, a lot of people find it difficult to understand it at a ministerial level. The people running the show are the people I call the tap turners. Unless you understand what they are doing and know what questions to ask and what issues need to be tackled, you are never going to solve this problem.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I do not know about Anna Bligh’s government, but I did know Peter Beattie’s government. The Premier pointed to exactly that with me when I raised it with him. He said, ‘Bill, I do not think they had faith in the people in the department of natural resources.’ Some of those people, of course, have some very close connections to the people who are out there in the field and are getting the financial gains out of what is proposed. I think it is quite curious that, in relation to the independent advice that the government got from it, the advisory committee was chaired by a person who, even though she does not qualify for a water licence—she has no capacity to store water or harvest water—has actually managed to get herself on to the biggest water licence that is ever going to be issued in Australia by way of a little reward. It is 469,000 megs.

Scott Spencer’s people the other day said, ‘Oh, well, Senator, that’s just some sort of private arrangement.’ Well, I think it is full-on bloody fraud. Someone up there should have the guts to say that. That particular committee was also to give advice to the government on compensation. We all know what the game is. They are going to issue these licences and then say, ‘Oh, we’re going to save the world and buy the place back.’ It adds $200 million or something to the asking price for Cubbie. Peter Beattie was smart enough to say, ‘Why would you absolutely maximise the value with taxpayers’ money and then buy it back?’ As you say, you capitalise the bloody wins and socialise the losses. It is just bloody crazy.

I will just go to Tooralie. I note that the Commonwealth government obviously is concerned about what has happened. I also note that we took evidence in South Australia that a lot of people are building the future plans in their own heads—that is, the users—on the history of the past rather than the science of the future. I have a very strong view that we are going to have to reconfigure the Murray-Darling Basin. As you know, I am pretty keen on giving the next generation of farmers some hope with some mosaic development of the north. Could you give us any advice as to how you would, if you were returning water to the system, acquire that water and where you would acquire it? I am all in favour of remedial works. If they want to buy Cubbie, I am in favour of that to fix the floodplain. It would cost $10 million. You would knock all those banks out et cetera. But I am not in favour of issuing those licences and then buying them back. Have you got any advice for the committee on the long-term prospects for the Murray-Darling Basin extraction versus the future science?

Prof. Kingsford —Well, I think to pick up on an earlier point, we need to identify where our conservation assets are and the key ones and then identify where the water is to buy to get there. We need to identify what we want out of it. The science is also going to be value based. You are going to have to decide how many red gums you want and how big an area and how many water birds. The science can contribute by informing you about what you get for your water from an environment point of view. Is it then going to be, ‘Okay, we can’t return this whole river system to where it was, so basically there are some environment parts that we are going to have to give away. But let’s focus on the bits that we know are potentially sustainable and important areas and get as much water as we can to them and essentially try to do that through water efficiency or buyback or whatever the other methods may be.’

Senator SIEWERT —When you say ‘identify those sites’, are you talking about beyond the icon sites that have already been identified?

Prof. Kingsford —Absolutely. I think one of the major issues—

Senator HEFFERNAN —No.

Senator SIEWERT —I just wanted to get that on the record.

Prof. Kingsford —in the management of the Murray-Darling Basin has been the Murray focus. We have not actually looked very hard at the Darling.

Senator SIEWERT —Thank you.

Senator HEFFERNAN —And it would be fair to say that the science of the future has a prediction of somewhere between 3,500 and 11,000 gigalitres to produce run-off, which means we absolutely will have to reinvent. You can still do it with the right technology. You can grow crops et cetera with fertigation. But the same science is saying that the weather is going to move south. It is going to go slightly anticlockwise. They are predicting—it is a reasonable vagary—increased rainfall in south-west Queensland. You are across that, are you not?

Prof. Kingsford —Yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN —And decreasing rainfall in south-east Queensland. So we are pumping a million extra people in there but we are going to have less run-off. This means that the contribution of these rivers to the system may become increasingly more important. I think the sad news for the Coorong, much to the distress of environmental people, is that it is going back to what it used to be, and that is a sea set-up. If you look at the 40- or 50-year prediction, it is half a metre on the top of the barrage now. You are looking at about a metre. Have you got any commentary on that?

Prof. Kingsford —Well, I think the worry is that it will not necessarily go back to what it was. It might become hypersaline, like the Lower Coorong, if we do not manage to be able to flush out some of these areas. We have been doing aerial surveys over the Lower Coorong for 25 years. Those areas are becoming more and more saline and less productive environmentally for things like water birds. We know what places are like when they get too much salt in and seawater. They basically biologically cannot operate.

Senator HEFFERNAN —We were told they were three times the salt level of sea water, so it would make a bit of sense to get that out of the system. Now to the spear through the heart. Given the circumstances now—the dry spring and the possibility of a dry autumn—what is your recommendation for the Coorong given that the water in the system is all allocated? What is your advice to this committee as to what we should do?

Prof. Kingsford —I have thought about this. Obviously you are going to try and find whatever water you can. I understand there has been a bit of local rainfall that has helped out a bit.

Senator HEFFERNAN —That is true.

Prof. Kingsford —I would like to see how good the science is about mobilising the acid—whether the acid becomes really mobilised and how much it gets mobilised—and whether or not there are any rehabilitation techniques for stopping that happening.

Senator HEFFERNAN —We were given evidence there is, yes.

Prof. Kingsford —I would be a bit tentative about building a channel to take water into Lake Albert until you had explored all of those possibilities.

Senator SIEWERT —You mean sea water?

Prof. Kingsford —Sea water, sorry, yes. If you went straight across from Lake Albert, you would have to go through the Coorong so you would have to go through the two dunes. Then you would have hypersaline water potentially in the Coorong.

Senator HEFFERNAN —So should we pump that hypersaline out?

Prof. Kingsford —Well, it is going to be very expensive. These are not trivial issues. There is a lot of salt there now because it has not been flushed out.

Senator HEFFERNAN —You do not have any idea what that would cost?

Prof. Kingsford —I do not have any idea of what that would cost. Fundamentally, the issue is that there is not enough fresh water coming down. I just think we need as much science on this as possible just to see what the options are and what the future is potentially going to be.

CHAIR —On that, thank you, Professor Kingsford. Before we bid you farewell, I have one last question. Are you supportive of the government’s recent announcement of a northern basin tender and of the Commonwealth government’s efforts to secure a range of agreements with the New South Wales and Queensland governments to secure passage for this water through smarter diversion rules?

Prof. Kingsford —Yes. I think if we can do that, absolutely. The more opportunity we have to get water to where it is needed, the better, as long as we are not robbing Peter to pay Paul along the way.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Where is that water proposed to come from under that statement you have just made there? Where are they proposing to get that water from?

Prof. Kingsford —I do not know.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I do not think they know either.

CHAIR —On that, thank you very much, Professor Kingsford. We do appreciate your time.

[9.02 am]