Rivers in crisis

By Geoff Adams

National Party MPs have drawn attention to the failure of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan to protect the environment while causing major socio-economic impacts on communities in the region.

Victorian shadow water minister Steph Ryan and Victorian Senator Bridget McKenzie were joined by Pyramid Hill farmer Chris Harrison in a flight along the mid-Murray last week.

Ms Ryan pointed to large stands of trees dying at the confluence of the Edwards and Murray rivers as evidence of the impact of out-of-season flooding in the iconic Millewa forest.

Mr Harrison said the average person was unaware of the environmental consequences of the impact of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

“I speak to people from all over the basin and there is degradation occurring due to the management of the rivers, caused by the high demand in the lower basin and the truncation of the Darling River from the Murray.

“We were promised that everyone would have a rosy future in this Murray-Darling Basin Plan and it is failing at all levels,” he said.

``We just flew over Cohuna. Devastating. If you had flown over there 10 years ago you wouldn't see a brown paddock. Now you don't see a green paddock.”

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority points to improved outcomes for fish and bird life along the rivers from the environmental flows generated under the plan, but also acknowledges basin communities which have experienced decline.

“The communities faring the worst are smaller ones where there is lower economic diversity and where annual irrigated cropping (e.g. dairy and rice) dominates,” the most recent annual report from the authority notes.

Last year the Productivity Commission urged the splitting of the authority because of the inherent conflict between managing the plan and enforcing compliance.

Both Ms Ryan and Senator McKenzie believe the roles should be separated to avoid the situation where the authority "marks its own homework".

“To manage the risks, basin governments need sound governance arrangements for integrated delivery. Before implementation, projects need to be independently reviewed to give confidence that they will deliver the predicted environmental outcomes and offer value for money,” the commission said.

Senator McKenzie said the roll-out of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan had to be examined in the light of environmental and socio-economic impacts.

Victoria, which had managed its resource well, was feeling the brunt of socio-economic impact, she said.

Further report, see page 4.