Healthy Working Murray Ministers!

Last Friday, water ministers from the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) States met with Federal water minister Tony Burke to agree a way forward with the badly damaged MDB Planning process (see some of my previous posts if you want more background).

A communiqué issued from the meeting (here) is full of the usual policy-speak, but there are some important signals hidden amongst the rhetoric.

The first, and scientifically most important from my point of view, was the statement that “…the objective is a healthy working basin”.   This is a subtle but fundamentally important change from the previous literal interpretation of the Water Act, which calls for an “environmentally sustainable level of (water) take “.

The former ‘Living Murray’ program that provided the first big allocation of environmental water for the MDB (500 gigalitres in 2004) had the ‘healthy working’ river idea at its core.  Unfortunately this concept, one that was central to both the scientific evaluation of water needs back in 2003-4 (which I led) and the broader support and engagement of regional communities, was ignored in the drafting of the Water Act in 2007, and hence, lost from the more recent MDB Basin planning process.

The ‘working’ description is entirely apt for the Murray-Darling.  The river flows have been profoundly modified through dams (total dam storage now 1.5 the times mean annual discharge) and irrigation diversions.  Basin riparian and floodplains lands have been very extensively cleared and/or drained (perhaps only 20% of original wetlands remain), and upper catchment forests are mostly gone or replaced by plantations.

All this has been done for great economic benefit.  But, whichever way you look at it, the Murray-Darling is a ‘working’ river system …. ignoring this fact is not helpful, from a scientific or a public-perception viewpoint..

The Murray Ministers also have called for a “new broader approach …..(which ) involves local communities”.  Clearly a reference to criticisms about the “veil of elaborate confidentiality” (to quote Harvard water guru, John Briscoe) surrounding the planning process so far.

The Ministers have also responded to wide-spread criticism from the irrigation industry (and elsewhere) that so-called environmental “works and measures” were not factored into the evaluation of environmental water needs.  This is a reference to the use of ‘ecological engineering’ to drive greater efficiencies in environmental water applications eg. through the use of regulators to hold water in floodplain wetlands after minor flood peaks have receded.  This can extend a flooding event above a critical ecological duration to allow, say, successful water-bird breeding (allows enough time for nests to be built, eggs to be laid, chicks to hatch, and finally to fledge and fly away!).

Perhaps most significantly from a political perspective, is the Ministers’ support for “a new, more balanced, inclusive and comprehensive approach to basin wide planning”….. a thinly veiled reference to the call for a triple bottom line assessment to underpin the Basin Plan , rather than the environment-centric approach that the Water Act seems to call for (and, as was applied in the draft Guide, leading ultimately to former MDBA Chair Mike Taylor’s resignation before Xmas).

Finally, the MDB Ministers committed to an early 2012 date for the Basin Plan to be presented to the Commonwealth Parliament.  A tough deadline given the time it will take to undertake the public consultation that has been signalled, let alone re-work the formal assessment process.

The MDB Plan phoenix may yet rise from its own ashes……as ever, watch this space!

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