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Water policy in the Murray–Darling basin has failed farmers and the environment. Will a new conciliatory conference and a promised reset force necessary change before it’s too late? By Margaret Simons.

Conciliation on Murray–Darling

MDBA board member Rene Woods, a Nari Nari man from south-west NSW.
Credit: Supplied

When the federal Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia, Keith Pitt, turned up in the New South Wales Riverina town of Griffith on Wednesday, some locals were alarmed to see him accompanied by police.

It wasn’t his choice, Pitt assured reporters. Decisions on what protection ministers need were made “by others”.

But the National Party stalwart acknowledged, in his blokey, “plain man” way, that it was not unreasonable.

“It’s a big country. There’s a lot of people who are incredibly passionate about the issues we are discussing here.”

Pitt was the keynote speaker at the first River Reflections conference, run by the Murray–Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) and set to become a yearly event. The conference is part of a step-change for the authority, which has previously faced criticism for being a top-down, Canberra-based autocracy.

Some people are cynical about the MDBA’s new emphasis on “listening” and community-driven solutions. As one farmer in Griffith remarked: “The MDBA only stops saying it has all the answers when things are falling apart. Then they throw it back at us and say, ‘You sort it out.’ ”

In this context, Pitt was politely received at River Reflections but did not impress. His main message was that he would barrel on with existing government policies, even though it is clear they are approaching a brick wall.

He again ruled out meeting water-recovery targets through the government buying back water from irrigators. This is despite the Productivity Commission and other inquiries concluding that this, together with targeted spending in rural communities, is the cheapest and most effective way of tackling overallocation.

The commitment, Pitt said, was “rock solid, from the prime minister down”, but he went on to emphasise that he could not bind future governments.

Jeremy Morton, Riverina rice grower and chair of the National Irrigators Council, said the government’s approach created uncertainty and risk for farmers who were already facing the reality of radically less water due to climate change.

Under the legislation that comprises the Murray–Darling Basin Plan, if water-saving targets are not met through efficiency projects, then the difference will have to be recovered from farmers.

But the efficiency projects are already running well behind and its widely accepted that targets are unlikely to be met by the 2024 deadline.

“So how is the government going to tackle that?” Morton asked in an interview with The Saturday Paper.

“Obviously, we’d prefer not to lose more water due to buybacks, but are we just giving up on the efficiency schemes?” He said Labor had not made its policy clear, either. “So how are farmers meant to plan and adapt if government can’t be frank about how it’s going to tackle that?”

At the conference, Pitt reinforced the federal government’s $3.5 billion commitment to building new dams and infrastructure in the basin, despite another keynote speaker, Professor Mark Howden, the director of the Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions at the Australian National University, saying that climate change reduced the likelihood they would fill. Howden questioned whether dams were the best way of tackling water security.

The scientists who addressed River Reflections painted a consistent picture of what they admitted was “doom and gloom”.

Average river flows in the basin had already dropped by 39 per cent over the past 20 years, mostly due to climate change, Howden said. Flows were already at or below the worst-case scenario predicted for 2050, and more reductions were likely.

A presentation from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) showed this was already a drag on agricultural productivity and, ultimately, food security. The future would bring more extremes of wet and dry years, more severe frosts and soil erosion and an overall drying.

It was in Griffith, in 2010, where furious farmers burned copies of the guide to the Murray–Darling Basin Plan, which had then just been released.

The document laid out how much water would have to be clawed back from irrigation to save the river. It suggested an extra 3000 to 4000 gigalitres of water for the environment was the bare minimum needed – meaning cuts of up to 37 per cent to irrigation.

The fury over those figures changed the trajectory of attempts to manage the basin and to address the history of water overallocation.

The Gillard Labor government, which had been buying back large amounts of water, crumbled under the pressure from farmers and regional communities worried about the impact of water reductions. The recovery figure was reduced to 2750GL. None of the scientists who have reviewed that figure regarded it as consistent with the science, even if the likely impact of climate change was ignored – which it was.

Since then, the Coalition government has ruled out any further water buybacks. Instead, the emphasis has been on saving water through engineering works and efficiency schemes. And now it is no longer possible to ignore climate change.

In 2017, it was decided that a further 605GL of water, on average, would be available for farmers, thanks to a series of “adjustment mechanism” projects that would be completed by 2024. These were meant to save water or achieve environmental objectives with less water.

South Australia secured a promise that there would be an additional 450GL of water to flow across its border, also thanks to efficiency projects and better management of the river.

But the NSW government, which presides over the largest area of the Murray–Darling basin, is running drastically behind on almost all aspects of river management, including the key efficiency projects.

NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro and Melinda Pavey, that state’s minister for Water, Property and Housing, have repeatedly threatened to pull out of the plan altogether.

Asked by reporters how the basin plan targets could be met without buybacks, Pitt offered no specifics.

“We still have a significant amount of time to run, some three years to go. And I’m not for running up the white flag,” he said.

 

A historic reckoning is looming. In 2026, the current Murray–Darling Basin Plan comes to an end. Its effectiveness will be reviewed and assessed. New agreements will need to be forged between communities, states and federal government – if they can manage it. The existing political compact is barely holding together.

Water represents an immense political challenge for the Nationals at both state and federal level. The party’s perceived favouring of northern cotton irrigators at the expense of the south has already led to it losing two NSW state seats to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, which has worked with the Greens in the state parliament to frustrate the government.

Now the head of the Southern Riverina Irrigators lobby group, Chris Brooks, plans to run against federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley in the seat of Farrer at the next federal election, as well as backing independents in three other Coalition-held basin seats.

Ley’s seat is generally regarded as very safe, but the Coalition has not forgotten that it was rural independents who enabled Julia Gillard to form minority government in 2010.

So far, the National Party’s response has been to simply push on, talking up dams and ruling out water buybacks without articulating another policy about how the missed targets will be reconciled with the basin plan.

At the conference, Pitt also announced $25 million of funding for metering of water use in the northern basin, which as he acknowledged was crucial to rebuilding trust in the system after allegations of widespread water theft.

Traditional owners, who have been repeatedly overlooked in the history of water management, were prominent at the River Reflections conference. Rene Woods, a Nari Nari man from south-west NSW, has recently been appointed to the board of the MDBA. Other attendees included Barkandji representatives from the lower Darling – which includes the site of the infamous Menindee fish kills of 2018. They argued for guaranteed river-flow targets in the Darling before irrigators upstream were allowed to pump or intercept floodwater.

Brendan Kennedy, deputy chair of the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations, emphasised that attendance by Aboriginal people did not mean they ceded sovereignty, or “authorised anyone else to manage our water or our country”.

But he went on to say First Nations people should be at the centre of future water plans – “the main meal, not the garnish” – and encouraged farmers and river managers to “pick up the phone” to discuss their plans. “We are not a scary people,” he said.

In a discussion session at the conference, the chief executive of the MDBA, Phil Glyde, stated with a clarity not previously heard that “we know the plan has to change”.

Yet it is clear that political leadership on that needed change is lacking.

Perhaps courageously, the new chair of the MDBA, former chief of the Australian Defence Force Angus Houston, took leadership as the theme of his concluding speech.

He acknowledged Pitt’s “full-steam ahead” approach, but implicit in his speech was the idea that leadership would have to come from the community of water users.

As for politicians, he said, “I’ve never seen anything positive come out of an adversarial relationship … always strive for a constructive relationship. That will build trust. And once you’ve got trust, you start to get influence … And who knows, they might open their wallets, which is often what you would like them to do.”

In some ways, the conference itself was the biggest evidence of change.

The history of the Murray–Darling Basin Plan has been one of conflict and pain – state against state, upstream against downstream, crop against crop. But here the talk was all about co-operation, adaptation and sharing.

A new, sophisticated generation of farmers no longer talk about burning the plan. The traditional owners were applauded warmly, the scientists with their apocalyptic predictions were treated politely.

So, Keith Pitt’s police escort was not needed. Not this week, in any case.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 12, 2021 as "Unloved Darling".

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Margaret Simons is a Walkley Award-winning journalist and author.