Labor needs to move on Murray-Darling Basin water protection

August 18, 2023
Ngiyaempaa elder Dr Beryl Camichael (left) and Jo Mellor at Menindee Lakes, 2021. Photo: Ben Hawke

An unreleased report from the New South Wales Department of Fisheries is warning about the terrible state of the Darling/Baaka River and the potential for more mass fish kills as the weather warms, the August 9 Guardian reported.

How did this river system get into such a desperate state after two years of good rainfall? Converting a vital resource — water — into a marketable commodity is the short answer.

Along with climate change, the demise of the Murray Darling Basin (MDB) is a significant threat to the whole country. Water scarcity affects not only drinking water, but agriculture and industry and, consequently, food supply.

The basin comprises 23 major rivers, contains 40% of the country’s farms and produces one-third of the national food supply and export produce. Two million people live along the MDB banks: it supports three-quarters of New South Wales’ flora, fauna and aquatic and bird life, and two-thirds of Victoria’s.

The near catastrophic over-allocation by governments and big business has led to the continued destruction of vital river systems.

International water expert Brian Richter in his 2014, book Chasing Water: A Guide for Moving from Scarcity to Sustainability said Australia is one of the world’s most depleted freshwater sources.

The Murray Darling Basin Plan (MDBP), since 2012, has set aside more than $13 billion for sustainable water use for communities, agriculture and the environment. This program still includes an inadequate measure of how much water is flowing in the system. Nor does it adequately measure, or enforce, regulations on the amount of water extracted.

Once, strict and inflexible water rules previously tied water use to land. Now, water trading schemes ultimately place publicly-owned water in the service of corporate profit, leaving the environment and community worse off.

The Murray and Darling/Baarka Rivers have been in crises in recent years with the latter ceasing to flow as a continuous river system between Menindee and Wentworth. The river mouth closed up during successive droughts and, even in periods of rain, there have been significant fish kills in the upper catchment, increasing salinity and toxic algal blooms.

The shortage of flow cannot only be attributed to the drying impacts of climate change: excessive water extraction into private dams for large irrigation projects and the expansion of cotton production in the northern basin has had a deadly impact.

Responsible water management has been sacrificed for political favours: tradeable water licences have been over-allocated.

The climate impacts of a drying southeast and flooding north have been overlooked in water allocations. First Nations' water knowledge and rights have been ignored. Meanwhile, the labyrinthine workings of the water market and government decision-makers have been kept murky, at best.

The impact of funnelling water to the most powerful and well-resourced leaves small farmers, First Nations communities, plants, animals and rivers of one-tenth of the country in jeopardy in the coming drought.

Water sharing?

The MDBP to return water to the environment has been whittled down from 4400 gigalitres a year for the environment, as recommended by the Wentworth Group of Scientists in 2010, to less than half that amount.

The Coalition government, on its way out of office, handed out new floodplain harvesting water licences to large-scale cotton irrigators. Under the new licences, large corporate water holders are allowed to divert up to 500% of these new water licences in any one year from overland water flows.

This further reduces inflows to over-allocated rivers and has blown the MDBP’s plan for states’ water budgets.

The NSW government’s water-sharing plans, which audit the licensed water take in the northern basin, have had to be withdrawn because of declining flows in northern rivers — leaving the nationally agreed MDB Authority (MDBA) water budget in crisis.

Aboriginal communities along the Darling/Baaka, with few rights for cultural use, have a dangerously poor quality and high risk supply of drinking water. Aboriginal control of water is less than 0.02%, yet communities represent more than 13% of the population in the northern catchments.

The Coalition said four new dams would solve water shortages, despite the problem of dams lowering water quality (turbidity and algal blooms), causing sediment build-up as well as causing river fragmentation and habitat loss.

Last year, 16 European countries removed barriers and dams to restore natural flows. 

Mining and groundwater

Despite climate scientists’ calls for no new fossil fuel projects, mining corporations are seeking approvals for 110 new coal and gas projects across the country: several gas ventures have been given the go-ahead.

Their disastrous impact on surface and groundwater are being fought under state or Territory laws. NSW laws prioritise economic benefit over the impact on the environment and human health: carbon impacts on climate are ignored completely. In NSW, mine expansions are referred to the Independent Planning Commission where community and local farming opponents have been fighting for environmental, health and water protections.

Water extracted or contaminated by coal, gas or metal mining, do not come under the MDBP and pollution is regarded as a state issue. The worst pollution incident within the MDB is from Newcrest’s Cadia gold mine: it has contaminated drinking water through uncontrolled dust from its tailings dams and exhaust vents.

Santos has been given permission to drill 850 coal seam gas wells in the Pilliga State Forest, a wetland on the Macquarie River. Gomeroi Traditional Owners are challenging this and the fact that their native title was extinguished.

The Shell-operated joint venture with Arrow, the Surat Basin Gas Project in Queensland, has been given permission to dump 15 million tonnes of salt waste and BTEX poisons from CSG mining alongside the headwaters of the Darling catchment.

Mining corporations can purchase surface and groundwater licences to extract and process minerals. These water licences are traded across catchments by water speculators and yet the MDBa does not address mining water take or its impacts.

Labor’s water challenges

Minister for Environment Tanya Plibersek must now restore a sustainable water balance in the largest river system in the world. The South Australian government is insisting on a minimal return of 450 gigalitres for the environment, before it signs on to the MDBA. Plibersek, at the very least, needs to hold the states, corporations and the MDBA accountable and return this amount to the environment.

The Coalition government ban on government water buy-backs needs to be lifted if any of the water is going to be returned to help the rivers survive.

NSW Labor must draw up better water-sharing plans. Failing this, the federal water act allows Labor to reduce the volume of water extracted from the MDB, for irrigation and provide more for the environment. 

The MDBA’s job to implement and monitor needs has to be divided up with a new, separate agency capable of measuring river flows, monitoring catchments and auditing water takes, rather than relying on inaccurate water modeling.

Water theft and corruption need to be investigated and prosecuted. Water justice campaigners have more to do while water licensing continues and monitoring and regulation remain weak.

[Tracey Carpenter is an activist with Water for Rivers.]

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