At a public meeting in Deniliquin on Thursday, February 9, participants were told by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority that the environment took precedence ahead of communities and consumptive water users.
This is a startling repudiation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan’s stated goals of achieving a ‘triple bottom line’ outcome.
Communities have for a long time believed the authority had adopted this position, but it had never been publicly acknowledged before.
When asked to support a community request for the temporary return of unused and excess environmental water, river management executive director David Dreverman unequivocally said ‘no’.
MDBA chair Neil Andrews appropriately supported his executive officer.
The questioning at the Deniliquin meeting concentrated on the volumes of water conveyed through the NSW river systems during the recent floods.
The authority confirmed that virtually all the environmental watering outcomes applicable for the current watering season had been achieved without the need to utilise any significant portion of the previously allocated water entitlements for environmental watering programs.
The authority was then asked whether it would recommend to the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder that he make this excess water available to communities and consumptive water users.
The answer was: ‘‘No, we would prefer to retain that water in order to meet our future environmental watering obligations’’.
There were further questions relating to the environmental requirements of the major red gum forests within the immediate surrounds of Deniliquin district.
These are the forests at Gulpa and Gunbower Koondrook-Perricoota and they are the major recipients of environmental watering programs.
The general consensus of the meeting was that the events of recent times would have resulted in a reduced need to water these areas in the immediate future. This claim to was rejected by the authority.
The authority confirmed it saw no need to adjust future proposed environmental watering plans in response to the recent floods.
This was an extraordinary statement to all those communities who have vast knowledge and practical experience of the red gum forests.
The natural cycle of these regions has always involved floods and droughts.
It appears that the authority is committed to environmental watering programs that ignores the natural cycles.
These were remarkable admissions, which clearly reveal the MDBA priorities in regards to the implementation of the current Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
From a personal perspective, this is devastating news.
I had, until now, supported the need for an equitable Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
I had always believed the most difficult aspect of implementing the plan would be the process of transferring the large volume of water previously and currently allocated to private users back to CEWH.
In order to achieve a consensual and equitable transfer, I had hoped the CEWH would make, when appropriate (that is, after major rain events and times of surplus) the temporary transfer of water back to consumptive users a routine and easy process.
Even if this process had been slightly skewed in favour of consumptive users during the early stages of the implementation of the plan, it would have minimised the risk to affected irrigated communities and softened the transition.
The ramifications of these public admissions by the authority are far reaching.
If the authority is to commence ‘piggy banking’ environmental water for future usage, the serious issues involving constraints management, carry-over entitlements and associated obligations, the loss of unused water and a plethora of other issues now arise.
At a time when the Federal Government is under severe budgetary strain, it defies belief that the authority would ignore all the commercial benefits associated with sale of temporary water on the open market in order to meet some bogus future environmental outcomes that it cannot quantify and may not need.
It is outrageous that those communities that have suffered the tribulations of a devastating flood are now being denied the commercial benefits of accessing water that is surplus to current requirements.