Huge water reports draw frustration from local irrigators

By Country News

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's report into the Murray-Darling Basin's water markets is the latest in an increasingly long list of substantial reports, with many questioning the efficacy of the substantial, and frequent, reports.

Released on July 30, the 544-page report is now one of the most extensive reports into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan as it follows the South Australian Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission huge 756-page final report and the Productivity Commission's five-year assessment of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan which ran 430 pages long.

Northern Victorian Irrigation Communities president Dudley Bryant estimates he has read, engaged with and responded to "hundreds" of reports in the past 15 years, and more than a dozen in the past year alone.

While there's plenty of opportunity for consultation, he questions whether anything meaningful is happening.

“All of it takes a lot of time. We're running farms, it's a big enough job on it's own without all of this,” Mr Bryant said.

“It'd be different if they were taking some action, but they're not.

“They love to say they've consulted, but they're not actually taking notice or action.

“We're going to be at the point (we stop putting in submissions) pretty soon.”

Mr Bryant said one thing most reports and submissions call for is an increase in transparency.

“I think more transparency would save a lot of problems.”

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's report into the Murray-Darling Basin water markets was 544-pages - the latest in a number of 500-plus page reports.

While government bodies and consultancy groups have paid staff to devote to researching, writing and preparing submissions to reports, Mr Bryant said farmers and advocacy groups continue to spend their own time voluntarily responding.

It's a view echoed by Nathalia farmer Chris Bourke.

He has spent years reading and engaging with reports and said it's feeling increasingly pointless.

“You start to question whether it's really worth reading it when they don't necessarily do anything with it or have the common courtesy to address your submission or say what it is that isn't going to work.

“They just fob it off.”

Mr Bourke expressed concern that reports were increasingly being left on government desks until "the sting has gone out of them".

While irrigators continue to express frustration with the volume and number of reports, University of Melbourne water specialist Erin O’Donnell said it was common to get big reports like the ACCC report, and unfortunately it was part of a trend.

Northern Victorian Irrigation Communities president Dudley Bryant with a small selection of water reports released in the past 12 months.

The past 20 or 30 years of water reform in the Murray-Darling Basin has been punctuated by very large tomes of reports produced by various governments and organisations.

“It is partly due to the nature of water,” Dr O’Donnell said.

“Water is a very technocratic space. Understanding the way we manage it requires science and engineering as well as an understanding of policy.”

Dr O’Donnell works in the university’s law school and focuses on water markets, environmental flows, and water governance. She confessed to not reading all of the reports produced.

“I think like many operators in this space I try to stay across the themes that each report is covering and to try to make sense of the connections between the issues.’’

She sometimes feels overwhelmed by the volumes involved and acknowledged it would be very hard for people working in agriculture to keep up.

Dr O’Donnell said the volume of reports could be driven by a genuine desire for accountability, transparency and community engagement.

But, she said there is a need for more strategic thinking to consider what is a functional community engagement program, rather than leaving the onus on the community to find the time and expertise to analyse hundreds of pages of reports.

Dr O’Donnell’s interview with Country News can be heard in detail in a podcast on the Country News website at: www.countrynews.com.au

A selection of water reports published in the past two years:

South Australian Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission final report, released January 29, 2019; 756 pages.

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's interim report into Murray-Darling Basin water markets, released July 30, 2020; 544 pages.

Productivity Commission's Murray-Darling Basin Plan five-year assessment, released August, 2018; 430 pages.

Victorian Environmental Water Holder's Seasonal Watering Plan 2020-2021, released July, 2020; 312 pages.

Analysis of Efficiency Measures in the Murray-Darling Basin by Ernst & Young, released January 19, 2018; 307 pages.

Lake Victoria Cultural Landscape Plan of Management 2019 by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, released January 28, 2020; 185 pages.

Review of the MDBA River Murray Operations Costs by the MDBA, released June 9, 2020; 132 pages.

Crop Yield Response to Water by the MDBA, released April 15, 2020; 93 pages.

Native Fish Recovery Strategy by the MDBA, released, June 23, 2020; 65 pages.