Murray-Darling deal leaves Basin high and dry

An old River Red Gum on the banks of the Murray River at Boundary Bend, Victoria.

The federal government reached an agreement with the Labor opposition to pass amendments to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan (MDBP) on May 8, effectively ensuring less water will flow to the environment in the southern basin.

The deal sidelined negotiations with cross-bench Senators and scuttled a move by the Greens to request a disallowance motion for the vote because of environmental concerns.

In response, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young tweeted: "Labor sells out the environment, the River Murray and ultimately they’ve sold out South Australia. Doing [a] deal with the National Party to cut environmental flows in favour of big corporate irrigators says everything."

She added that South Australia was being "screwed" by the plan and, when speaking to the ABC, said: "Last week I was down at the bottom of the river — at the river mouth — it's sick, it's dying and we're not getting the water we were promised coming through the system."

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), the body in charge of implementing the MDBP and, unsurprisingly, the big corporate irrigators, welcomed the agreement citing the certainty it would provide irrigators in "Australia's food-bowl".

Practically, the bipartisan amendment means 675GL (gigalitres, or a billion litres) will not come from direct water buybacks from irrigators and instead will be "recovered" through sustainable diversion limit (SDL) adjustment projects.

But there is widespread scepticism from scientists and other concerned parties whether the SDL projects can deliver the required outcomes practically, environmentally or at an equal or lesser cost to buybacks.

A week before the vote Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists spokesperson Associate Professor Jamie Pittock voiced their concerns to farmonline.com.au: "We’re concerned that the Senate vote could be a de facto approval to spend $1.3 billion in taxes on these projects ... [that] before they are agreed ... should [be] exposed to proper scrutiny to ensure value for money per megalitre, as the MDBA standards requires.”

He added that “Victoria’s projects are more than double the agreed maximum cost”.

Peter Owen from the Wilderness Society was scathing, telling the ABC: "Once again our political process has failed. Greed and self-interest will now drive the internationally significant Lower Murray Lakes and Coorong to the brink.

"The one thing that our top scientists have been saying for decades now is we've got to reduce the amount of water we take out for irrigation and leave that water in the system, return environmental flows to the Murray.

"It would appear this will ultimately have to be decided in the High Court."

Indeed, the legality of the revised plan was questioned even before it was passed by the Australia Institute and the commissioner of the Adelaide-based Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission Bret Walker SC, because it weakens the original targets and goes against the intent of the MDBP.

In an issues paper released on April 30, Walker outlined his concerns that "the MDBA has fallen into legal error" in part because "the Water Act, properly defined, requires environmental considerations to be paramount, and that economic and social outcomes are irrelevant".

Originally, the MDBP had set a target of 3200GL to be left in the river. This was the minimum amount recommended by environmental scientists and the CSIRO to ensure the health of the river. The political negotiations among the states eventually whittled this figure down to 2750GL and the latest tweaking will reduce that further.

While there have been some minor improvements in the health of the basin, even optimistic estimates indicate it will be decades before substantial improvements in the river system could be measured. While legal action may help reverse or even prevent any further undermining of the MDBP, what remains to be seen is whether the Murray-Darling system itself can survive while profits are prioritised over its conservation.

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