Honeymoon over at MDBA ?

In my August 16 blog I welcomed the new, conciliatory tone towards the States over the Murray-Darling Basin plan from MDBA Chairman Craig Knowles.

Knowles, himself a former NSW state water minister, had publically acknowledged “…the expertise of the states in water management, and their willingness to cooperate in a forward program of work”.

Well, it seems like that was a short marriage, or at least a honeymoon that has ended with a big argument  (a bit like when you let slip something you have always thought, but should never have said, about your new spouse’s mother’s cooking)

Speaking yesterday at a major MDB local government conference Knowles is reported as saying that “a lack of cooperation (with the States) has hindered the drafting of the plan for the management of the Murray-Darling”.

“The people of Australia expect a partnership (and they) expect their governments to do better on something as fundamentally important as the strength and survival of some communities in regional Australia because of water availability”, ABC News on-line quotes Knowles at the Murray-Darling Basin Assocaition conference.

Hardly the sort of conciliatory language I was expecting after Knowles so recently embraced the States and their new “willingness to cooperate”.

Knowles apparently went on to say that “This plan had to involve the states, their knowledge, their history, and their capacity to be partners”.  But, at least as reported in the media, this risks sounding more coercive than cooperative.

I said in August that  “… anything that Knowles can do to re-build the relationship(s) (with the States) will be fundamental to getting a good outcome.  As much, if not more so, than the need to get support from irrigators and the public.”

I believe Craig Knowles remains committed to a cooperative approach with the States.  Certainly he has done a lot of good in his comparatively short tenure to recover the planning process from the damage done by the ill-fated MDB Guide last year.   But this kind of public statement can’t help but rekindle resentment back in the state water HQs in Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

Snowy River flow release

After years of drought in eastern Australia, a large environmental water allocation is good news for a river.  It’s particularly good when it’s for the Snowy River.

The Snowy River, iconic in Australia (think the 1980s acclaimed ‘Man from Snowy River’ movies), is a large snow-melt river, something that is not too common in Australia.  It links the Snowy Mountains, in New South Wales, to the Bass Strait, between Victoria and Tasmania, and in former natural conditions it had a huge flow during spring and summer.

Dammed in the 1950s as part of the Snowy Mountains Scheme supplying hydroelectricity and irrigation water for south-eastern Australia, the Snowy River’s ecology and geomorphology have endured 50-60 years of extremely low flows. The new Jindabyne Dam captured about 99% of Snowy River flows downstream.

In 2000 , the Snowy River was the first major, high profile environmental flow allocation decision made in Australia.  The joint Commonwealth-NSW-Victorian Government decision provided $375 million to recover 282 GL for the environment (210 GL for the Snowy River, 70 GL for the River Murray).  This was based on a target to restore 21% annual flow to the Snowy River below Jindabyne Dam by 2010 (and up to 28% post-2010).

Since that time, a consequence largely of nearly a decade of drought, not much environmental water has made its way down the Snowy (less than 50 GL in total or about 4% natural annual flow).

But, it’s just been announced that 84 GL will be released into the river during October over a 3 week period, and that flows should reach 12 GL per day for 3 days during that period.

The release is said to be ‘the biggest environmental water release into the Snowy River since the construction of the hydro-electric scheme’.

Last November, environmental flow releases of 3 GL per day into the Snowy over 4 days were the largest since the 1950s.  Monitoring and assessment afterwards found effects on the salinity of the estuary, and some scouring of the upland channel, although confused by ‘freshes’ from rainfall. More of the river bed was inundated, but there was not enough flow to cover relatively small natural barriers in the river which limit fish passage.

This newly announced release follows years of water recovery by the ‘Water For Rivers’ joint government enterprise set up after the 1998 Snowy River Inquiry.

It is good news for the Snowy!

*1 GL = 1 billion litres = 1 million cubic metres = 811 acre feet

Snowy River downstream of Jindabyne Dam ...waiting for the flow! (NSW Office of Water photo)


Abbott wades into CSG debate

In my last blog on coal seam gas (28 June – Temperature rises on coal seam gas) I warned of the political dangers facing the new NSW liberal-national party coalition government around the rapidly growing debate over coal seam gas extraction on private farm land.

Potential impacts on groundwater resources and surface streams are a big part of the public concerns, although the broader environmental and aesthetic elements of gas heads spread across private farms and rural landscapes are part of the story too.

I said then, and nothing has changed since, that the NSW state government will have to very carefully balance the interests of its own coalition – the traditional Liberal* party support for big business (the mining industry in this case) and the rural and farming concerns of the National Party.

NSW Liberal Premier (Governor for US readers) Barry O’Farrell and his ministerial colleagues have played a fairly careful hand around this issue in recent months – obviously aware of the delicate political balancing act they are facing.

However, Federal ‘opposition’ leader, Tony Abbott (head of the Federal Liberal-National coalition) seems not to have taken O’Farrell’s cautious lead, diving head long into the debate last week.  Abbott decried that farmers should be able to stop coal seam gas companies ‘forcing’ their way onto their land.

Not only was this at logger-heads with the mining and business interests of his own party,  but it put him in direct conflict with long-standing mining laws in Australia that effectively guarantee mining companies access to mineral resources underneath private land (subject to a range of regulatory approvals)

Ironically, Abbott quickly found himself being courted by the Green Party, which came out in support of his apparent ‘anti-mining, pro-farming’ stance.  The Greens concerns lie more with the possible environmental consequences of CSG extraction, rather than with the farmers per se, nevertheless they saw Abbott as an ally, albeit a strange one, in the CSG issue.

Abbott was then very quick to point out to the media that there was no chance of an alliance between his party and the Greens on the CSG issue, or on any other issue for that matter!  The Greens hold the balance of power in our Federal parliament, and are disparaged by Abbott and his conservative colleagues on almost every political issue they raise.

Realising the political wedge he had walked into, later in the week Abbott backed off from his overtly pro-farming stance, trying to strike a more conciliatory tone saying “We support the mining industry but we don’t want to see prime agricultural land destroyed”.  He tried to pass that red hot political potato back to the States stating, “land use decisions ….are fundamentally a matter for the States”.

Beyond all this political advancing and retreating remains the need for a proper scientific analysis on the possible ground- and surface-water impacts of CSG extraction in Australia.  Our national science organisation CSIRO last month announced a research alliance with Australia Pacific LNG.  Hopefully that will help bring some scientific rationality to what has become a very emotive public debate.

I am guessing that there will be some in the farming and environmental community worrying that CSIRO risks getting too close to the CSG industry. Clearly, CSIRO will need to be extremely careful how it manages the relationship with CSG companies, and how it protects the integrity of its research and research publication process.  But, given CSIRO’s strong reputation for independence  I am confident they will walk that tight-rope wisely.


*Overseas readers should note that Australia’s ‘Liberal’ party is,  strangely enough given its name, our largest conservative party (the equivalent of the US Republican Party, or near enough so). It has a long-standing coalition agreement with the rural-leaning, and even more conservative, National Party.  The incumbent Federal ‘Labor’ Government is akin to the US Democratic Party.

More breathing space for MDB Plan

The Draft of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan has been again held back from its projected release date of late July–early August.  An announcement by MDBA Chair Craig Knowles late last week says the Authority now aims to release the Draft in November, three to four months later than originally planned, and a month later than the mid-October release announced on 3 August.

This further delay is intended to let the MDBA and the five Basin states achieve ‘a higher degree of collaboration and joint ownership …(of the plan)’.

The previous delay was to allow time to address issues raised by Basin irrigators and communities, as well as the state governments, since the Guide to the Draft came out last October. Some scientists had also raised concerns about the need for another review of the underpinning science.

In his 11 August statement, MDBA Chairman Craig Knowles acknowledged the expertise of the states in water management, and their willingness to cooperate in ‘a forward program of work’.

This conciliatory approach by Knowles is sorely needed.  Much angst has been generated between the Sates and Commonwealth over the Basin Plan development, and anything Knowles can do to re-build the relationship(s) will be fundamental to getting a good outcome.  As much, if not more so, than the need to get support from irrigators and the public.

Knowles’ earlier press release (3 August), also stated that the Authority recognised it needed more time to bring in relevant points from reviews of the science behind the plan.  This may have been stimulated by calls by the ‘Wentworth Group’, widely reported across national media in June, for a new independent science review.  National and international reviews had been undertaken in April last year, but significant scientific analyses have occurred since then, including those done since the guide was released in October 2010.

Knowles has announced that a new science review panel, led by CSIRO’s Dr Bill Young, is examining whether the hydrological and ecological models used in the MDB planning process, and the scientific data and assumptions behind them, are robust.  I am on that review panel.

The MDBA website says this review is due to report in August, and for its findings to be publicised later when the Draft is released.

With allocations for irrigators looking as if they’re at reasonable levels again, environmental flows being delivered, and good figures for salinity in the lower Murray over recent weeks, the Murray-Darling Basin as a whole is having a chance to recover from the long drought.

In other words, the floods of last summer have given the MDBA breathing space – both politically and environmentally.

In my view it is sensible of Craig Knowles to use that space ‘to share ideas and suggestions for the plan and its implementation’.  If, as he hopes, that process results in ‘collaboration and joint ownership’ of the plan by the States and Basin communities, it will be well worth the additional wait.





Good and bad news for MDB

A series of reports reviewing the predictions of the MDB Guide to the Draft Plan was released by the South Australian Government at the end of July.

The MDB Guide proposed extra flow volumes of 3000, 3500 or 4000 gigalitres/year Basin-wide.  Hydrological modelling by South Australia’s Goyder Institute predicted that those augmented flows would be down to an 1880–2500 extra GL per year by the time the River Murray reaches the SA border, after meeting water demands upstream.

The extra flow will clearly benefit ecological assets in the Lower Murray and at the Murray Mouth. However, actual benefits will ultimately depend heavily on how (timing, size, etc) environmental flows are delivered, and on how the upstream storages and other environmental assets are managed.

Theoretically, the extra flow coming into SA could mean more frequent wetting for floodplain wetlands and Red Gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) communities. The bad news is that even with 4000 GL extra annually (equivalent to 2507 GL/year at the border), the timing, size and duration of river flows are unlikely to let these flows meet all environmental water requirements (EWRs).

Further, with environmental flows being released more often upstream, the reviews suggest there is less chance of storages being able to fill to the point where they could release really big flows that could inundate floodplain wetlands and plant communities associated with Black Box (E. largiflorens).  Black Box mostly occupies the highest points on the floodplains of Murray-Darling Basin rivers, and the trees hence need big floods to reach them –  floods  that these days may be seen once every 10-20 years or less.

Near the Murray Mouth, Coorong and Lower Lakes (CLLMM), the reviews conclude there will potentially be enough extra water volume to meet EWRs sometimes, depending on how the flows are delivered.

The good news is that all three of the proposed scenarios, however, are likely to improve water quality in the River Murray and the Lower Lakes. Risks of blue-green algal blooms, acidification of the Lower Lakes and high (1400 EC) salinity in the river are all reduced (in the modelling) by the potential extra flows. However, salt is still likely to accumulate in wetlands and on floodplains.

Back in the real world, sampling data from the SA Murray and Lower Lakes over recent weeks shows that salinity has dropped considerably because of flushing by high flows between mid-2010 and early 2011. Salinity in the river, measured in 57 profiles sampling at 1 m intervals from surface to bed, is reported as having halved since the height of the drought. The water quality is reported in July as ‘excellent’ overall.  Near the mouth, at the Lower Lakes in April, Lake Albert’s salinity was at 5000 EC compared to 20,000 EC in January 2010 and may fall further, and salinity in L. Alexandrina was below 500 EC after reaching 8000 EC in early 2010.

The April report from the SA EPA and Dept of Environment and Natural Resources states:

“Salinity remains stable and at low levels across Lake Alexandrina* due to dilution from river inflows and export of salt through the barrages. Salinity levels still remain elevated in Lake Albert* compared to historical values. pH and alkalinity continue to remain satisfactory at all sites in the main lake water bodies. Low levels of acidity (in the form of soluble metals) have been found on several areas on the lake margins that turned acidic during the 2007–2009 drought. This is not currently cause for concern as alkalinity and pH are at satisfactory levels in these areas.”

Read the Goyder reports here.

*  Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert are two large, regulated lakes which form part of the historic estuarine lake system at the oceanic outlet of the Murray-Darling Basin in South Australia.  The region also includes the Ramsar-listed Coorong wetlands.

Sustaining the world’s rivers

Across the world, people have seen their rivers deteriorate, becoming less reliable as a water supply, clogged with sediment, too contaminated to drink untreated, diminished in biodiversity or over-run by pests and weeds.

River and catchment protection is now seen in most countries as a fundamental component of integrated water and environmental management. Hundreds if not thousands of collaborative initiatives around the world are in the process of rescuing rivers and their associated lakes, wetlands and catchments.

The policy and management underpinning river restoration is complex.  Leading South African river scientist and commentator, Professor Kevin Rogers, wrote in 2006,
Rivers are, by their very nature, common property resources. As such, they present two fundamental challenges in management: how to regulate access to the resource, and how to institute rules among users to solve the potential divergence between individual and collective rationality about use of the resource.

Rogers went on to say that the key to producing broad societal responses to environmental problems ‘’lies in the processes used to develop a common understanding and collective decision-making in the redistribution of costs and benefits of resource use’’.

We need look no further than our own backyard in Australia to see such socio-political dynamics in river restoration.  Work on restoring the Murray-Darling River system has been on-going for more than two decades. Consumptive (surface) water use was capped in 1995, and strategies for managing water quality, fish, endangered species, riparian vegetation, in-stream habitat (to name but a few) have been enacted.  Whilst these programs were politically and socially difficult to implement in their time, they pale in comparison to the controversy and grief that has been caused by the recent attempts to reset the balance in water use between humans and the environment (through environmental water recovery initiatives such as Water for the Future, and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan).

Nevertheless, in Australia, as well as around the world, there have been some outstanding success stories resulting from integrated river restoration work. Since 1999, successful projects have been able to apply to win the prestigious Thiess International Riverprize, awarded by Australia’s International River Foundation (IRF) annually for river restoration.  There is also an Australian Riverprize, awarded since 2001.  Details can be seen at http://www.riverfoundation.org.au/riverprize.php .

IRF CEO Matt Reddy has indentified hurdles that successful restoration projects have to leap including:

  • The need for long-term commitment:  It is unrealistic to expect major restoration outcomes in just a few years, when the damage has accumulated over decades or perhaps centuries.
  • Strong and influential leadership is essential, as is sufficient (often large) funding.
  • Acknowledging that individuals and local projects can be as helpful as large-scale institutional programs in achieving the objectives.
  • Adaptability, flexibility and, most of all, open and honest collaboration, are vital. Unusual partnerships across various sectors of society may be necessary, and may prove crucial to success.
  • Monitoring, recording and reporting data, assessment, and feedback along the way help refine the science and thinking behind the project. They also let the program team and stakeholders see what has been achieved, and learn from successes and mistakes.
  • Shared information is a keystone of the work: knowledge is power in these endeavours, and those who seek to hold it to themselves (often governments unfortunately) unbalance and unhinge the collaborative process.  With today’s internet resources, there is rarely a good excuse for not sharing data and information.
  • Celebration of involvement and progress is very important and can stimulate more partnerships, efforts and long-term participation.


The above is an edited extract from my recent article, released yesterday at http://www.ewater.com.au/h2othinking/?q=2011/07/sustaining-worlds-rivers


Rogers K.H. 2006: The real river management challenge: integrating scientists, stakeholders and service agencies. River Research & Applications 22:269-280.

Temperature rises on coal seam gas

In my blog on coal seam gas (CSG) on 31 March, I mentioned that the newly elected New South Wales government had promised to apply a tougher assessment process to mining and coal seam gas extraction.

Politically, this is going to be difficult task for the NSW government.  They will have to balance their two major political party interests – farming and big business.  Exactly the two sides lined up against each other on the CSG debate.

As a water scientist, I have highlighted concerns that unregulated CSG mining might impact on surface and groundwater resources in mining regions. Given the scarcity of water already for agriculture in these areas, this is something we probably cannot afford to let happen (see also my Blog on Groundwater and CSG on 14 April).

On 21 May, the NSW government acted on their promise, announcing a 60 day moratorium on new exploration and licence issue.  But was this really an act of a government committed to policy reform on a tough issue, or just one trying to buy some time?  As Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said at the weekend “60 days is nothing, these projects take three years, I don’t know what they are doing down there (in NSW)”.

More substantially, also included in their new policy statement, the NSW government will require all new coal, gas and petroleum licence applications to submit an ‘Agricultural Impact Assessment’.  Perhaps a reasonable thing to do, but I doubt that already existing ‘Environmental Impact Assessments’ (EIAs) have stopped too many mining projects in this country in the past 30 years, so perhaps we should not expect too much more from the, yet undefined, ‘AIAs’.

The Deputy Premier of NSW, Andrew Stoner said the aim is to reform legislation so that mining does not override agricultural values.

The government’s statements in May were welcomed by groups including the NSW Farmers Association, which said it looks forward to further discussions.  However, the statement hasn’t calmed the strong concerns that have built-up in people who may be directly affected.  In fact, more and more people are anxious, with exploration looking likely in the water catchments for Sydney’s main water supply dam ‘Warragamba’, as well as in prime agricultural land across the eastern half of the state.

Federal opposition resources spokesman, Ian MacFarlane, has weighed into the debate saying that he was “utterly appalled that exploration permits were being granted over residential areas”, according to quotes in last Saturday’s The Australian newspaper.  MacFarlane’s federal electorate in southern Queensland covers areas affected by CSG development

In its announcement on 21 May, the NSW government also committed to introducing an ‘Aquifer Interference Regulation’ to “…better regulate activities that impact on our vital aquifers.”  The existing definition of aquifer interference relates only to the extraction of silica sands and road-base material.

Setting and, more importantly, enforcing regulations on aquifer impacts from CSG extraction is not going to be easy, given the lack of good groundwater monitoring data in many parts of NSW and Queensland.

The new NSW CSG policy in NSW is also silent on the key issue of possible impacts of pumped groundwater, potentially high in salt and other contaminants, when it is stored on the surface or released into local streams (accidentally or intentionally) (see my 31 March blog for more on this)

There have been several very well attended public meetings across NSW over the last few weeks, and the public temperature is certainly rising on CSG, especially in affected rural areas.

This issue is certainly not going to go away.