It has been a turbulent week for the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) plan, with fresh concerns about the science under-pinning the Basin Plan being aired widely across our national print and broadcast media.
Last Friday, the ‘Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists’ announced that they were withdrawing from the basin planning process over concerns about the integrity and independence of the MDBA’s scientific assessments.
The Wentworth’s water program manager, Tim Stubbs, was quoted earlier this week as saying “….(withdrawal) wasn’t our first choice ……Wentworth have tried for over eight weeks now to get some sort of independent review process happening within the Authority. We have tried every approach we have felt was open to us.”
The ‘Guide’ to the Basin Plan released by the MDB Authority last October suggested that up to 7600 GL was required ‘on a low environmental risk basis’ to meet the ecological sustainability provisions of Australia’s Water Act (2007). However, they subsequently scaled that back to a ‘higher-risk’ 3000-4000 GL target range on economic and social acceptability grounds. The Wentworth group had previously declared that they expected a minimum of 4000 gigalites of water to be recovered for the environment through the Basin Plan.
Further raising concerns from many groups, including our peak environmental NGO, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), were the comments before a Federal Senate (‘estimates’) committee yesterday by outgoing MDBA chief executive Rob Freeman. Freeman declared that his organisation had, since the Guide was released, come up with a ‘radically new’ scientific approach to determining environmental water requirements. The approach focuses on delivering water to specific ecologically sensitive sites, rather than solely on end of system flows.
The MDBA’s new methods may well be better and more consistent with ‘best practice’ amongst other river scientists around the world (why the MDBA adopted the ‘end of system’ flows only targets in the first place remains a mystery). But by making big changes at this late stage, the MDBA is running a serious risk that people perceive this as a ‘retrofitting’ process to justify a politically acceptable figure for environmental water recovery, rather than an independent and objective scientific analysis. Certainly, that would appear to be a key concern of the Wentworth Group and the ACF.
Adding grist to that mill, Freeman apparently told the Senate Committee that “Clearly, that lower band (3000-4000 GL) is now being explored, and ….(their new analyses) are now yielding numbers below 3000 GL”. The Australian newspaper reported last week that an even lower recovery target of 2,800 GL was now being considered and these comments by Freeman appear to have confirmed that.
Unfortunately, all this can only reflect poorly on all water scientists, and worse still, on the ability of science as an institution to effectively inform and support public policy. I only hope that new MDBA chair Craig Knowles has the political acumen to rescue the basin planning process before it is too late.
In the end it is not scientists, but the river’s ecosystems, or its farmers, or worse still both, that will suffer the most if we get this wrong.