Murray murmurings: rethinking the Basin Plan

The launch of the community guide to the draft Murray Darling Basin Plan marks the latest step in the largely bipartisan process of water reform that started with the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) reforms of 1994.

It also graphically displays the risks inherent in the increasingly centralised, Commonwealth-driven approach to water planning that developed under the Howard government and has intensified since.

The lack of buy-in to the draft Basin Plan among affected communities is palpable. The feeling that decisions that will affect lives and businesses are being made remotely, without a fine-grained understanding of local impacts or local solutions, is widespread across the Basin.

Even among people who accept that the Basin is not a magic pudding, and that decades of over-allocation need to be corrected in the interests of long-term water security and river health, there is a strong perception that the plan is a done deal, that consultation processes are cosmetic, and that legitimate social and equity concerns are not being taken seriously.

The past few weeks have been profoundly disturbing for professionals in water and natural resource management in Australia.

The prospect that another critically important reform process may unravel is depressing.

The loss of goodwill and the human cost of the current approach has been terrible. It is jeopardising the social capital and broad consensus on sustainable natural resource management (NRM) that has evolved since the advent of Landcare in the late 1980s.

We have learnt much about NRM and social change in these decades, but these lessons appear to have been ignored in the Basin Plan process.

How could this have been handled differently?

Australia is facing big, long-term, systemic challenges: to decouple economic growth from carbon emissions; to cut the carbon, water and energy intensity of our economy; to shift to renewable energy; to handle a highly variable climate and more frequent and intense extreme weather events; and to manage population growth and development pressures without trashing or urbanising our best farm lands, carving up our coastline and bush, or further endangering native flora and fauna.

Australia has a unique place in the world’s evolution and thus a grave responsibility for protecting its unique ecosystems. But this cannot be done without informed and committed people.

In the past two decades, we have learnt that we won’t be able to meet the challenges of sustainable farming, carbon, water, energy or biodiversity conservation without grassroots community support and engagement. Durable, adaptable, locally-responsive solutions are unlikely to emerge through centralised, command-and-control planning.

As a thought experiment, imagine where we might be now with the draft Basin Plan, if the Rudd government had decided to mark the 20th or 21st anniversary of former Labor PM Bob Hawke’s launch of Landcare by announcing a major rejuvenation and expansion of Landcare around climate change, carbon literacy, renewable energy, water management, drought resilience and sustainable food systems.

This could have been a natural fit with schools programs under the so-called Education Revolution, linked with widespread community engagement through interactive web 2.0 technologies.

Designed around principles of community involvement, adult learning and local development and ownership of local solutions, this could establish an informed and engaged community base for the big national debates around climate, carbon, water, energy and food.

I suggested as much in a submission (more than a tad optimistic with hindsight) to the 2020 Summit.

These community-driven approaches could be funded and guided through a complementary consolidation of state and federal investment in a strengthened regional framework of Catchment Management Authorities, with a mandate across water, land and biodiversity, and ideally with local rating powers for catchment improvement works.

These bodies provide a critical bridge between government, community and industry.

The investment in Landcare and regional approaches over the past 20 years has developed and engaged an extraordinary network of committed, switched-on community leaders, with deep local knowledge and connection to place.

These local champions have much to offer, particularly working in partnership with regional industry leaders, but they have been increasingly marginalised in the creeping centralism of the past decade.

The social capital built up is a precious asset, but it is depreciating rapidly through ephemeral funding models that promote short-term competition at the expense of long-term collaboration and capacity.

An alternative approach to the Basin Plan would have been to develop it using regional and more bottom-up community involvement, rather than from the top down through a centralist, one-size-fits-all approach.

Catchment authorities, irrigation companies, local governments and community groups could have been engaged from the beginning.

Under this approach, they would have been provided with key scientific inputs, such as the CSIRO estimates of likely water availability for each valley, and helped with planning that is consistent with the principles agreed by all jurisdictions under the National Water Initiative.

Within this planning model, based on clear objectives and defined boundary conditions, regional communities and industries could then have been given the opportunity to come up with their own plans for water sharing.

Importantly, they could become prepared for managing the environmental water that has been secured through Commonwealth buy-backs.

State, Commonwealth and science agencies could help the process with technical support from people with real water management expertise, but within existing catchment management frameworks that have been in place in all basin states for the better part of the past 20 years.

As Bernard Keane said at on October 14, over-allocation of water by the states, double-counting of surface and groundwater, and tardy development of water markets have been fundamental drivers of the current problem.

Nevertheless, officials within state agencies have relevant technical knowledge and long experience that is not being used to its full potential.

Many very committed people within the Murray Darling Basin Authority have worked their hearts out over the past two years, on the Basin Plan and overseeing the many projects that feed into it.

They have done the best they can under the circumstances, within a framework approved by the federal parliament via the Turnbull bill of 2007 (notably opposed by rural independent MP Tony Windsor) and the almost identical Rudd/Wong Water Act of 2008, and the parameters set by the board of the authority — for example the critical judgment to aim for an overall reduction of 3000-4000 Gigalitres a year in diversions, as opposed to a figure closer to the 7600Gl a year that the science suggests is needed to ensure that all valleys reach “good” flow levels.

The 3000Gl figure represents the minimum the authority considers is required to achieve the environmental objects of the Water Act.

According to the guide to the Murray Darling Basin Plan, it has “a high dependence on a long-term return to wetter climatic conditions across the Basin”.

Murray Darling Basin Authority staff must feel gutted at the response to their work.

My central concern is that, no matter how many extra people are employed at the federal level to work on water policy, or how committed and technically proficient they are, most of the relevant knowledge for making wise long-term water allocation decisions and translating those into fine-grained, workable local solutions resides in regional communities, industry, NGOs, state agencies and scientific institutions.

A process that fails to engage meaningfully — and in many cases disenfranchises — the people with most of the relevant knowledge, is fundamentally unsound.

With the best will in the world, you can’t plan or manage individual valleys, rivers or wetlands from Canberra any better than you can run regional schools or hospitals, or insulate households.

It is a mistake to assume that local community-based processes cannot make tough decisions.

A crucial point that has mostly been overlooked in the current “debate” — and which the government and the Murray Darling Basin Authority could have communicated much more effectively from the outset — is that about a third of the cut in allocations proposed in the guide to the draft basin plan has already been secured through water buy-backs.

It is not at all clear in the current process how Commonwealth water purchases are integrated with the Basin Plan. The government has stressed that it will only buy water from willing sellers.

But the community understands very well that some parts of the system work far better than others, and that in some cases it would be better to decommission the least sustainable irrigation infrastructure, accompanied by targeted buy-backs.

With strong local leadership and community engagement, the Campaspe and Torumbarry examples show that, provided the price is right, these solutions can be delivered with a high level of local acceptance.

The alternative is a “Swiss cheese” approach of reducing allocations at random across the map, potentially affecting the viability of even the best-managed irrigation districts.

Pursuing “value for money” by seeking to buy as much water as possible for a given amount of funds is superficially attractive and arguably what the taxpayers would expect, given that value for money is a key factor for the buy-back.

But in the longer run, buying water as cheaply as possible wherever it can be secured is likely to be a false economy. More targeted buy-backs will be more effective, even at higher than market prices (within reason).

As one regional leader told me: “We have identified areas for targeted buyback to achieve multiple benefits, [which include addressing] salinity and infrastructure viability … in partnership with the community. The basin plan debate is so unsophisticated compared to our community discussions in Northern Victoria over the past few years.”

The other side of water buy-backs also underdone in the current debate is how best to manage the environmental water that has been bought already, and the thousands of gigalitres that remain to be secured.

Irrigators and community groups are understandably keen to see environmental water managed at least as well as irrigation diversions, with transparent and appropriate performance benchmarks and monitoring.

Again, a community-based, bottom-up process through catchment and industry partnerships can develop environmental watering plans based on detailed local knowledge of structures, flow patterns and environmental assets.

The establishment (under or in partnership with catchment management authorities) of environmental water trusts that are devolved, accountable and knowledgeable of local conditions is worth exploring.

Locally-driven environmental watering plans can more easily capture opportunities, better meet local environmental needs, and better manage third-party impacts.

Working with Landcare and catchment groups, environmental water managers can complement activities such as weed and pest animal control or revegetation works, to deliver multiple benefits for river health, biodiversity and salinity management.

Dry years have seen salinity fall off the radar as water tables have dropped, but the salt remains in the system. Wetter conditions would see it appear again.

The centralising trend of the past decade has been accompanied by continued compartmentalisation in policy design and program delivery. Terry Moran said last year in a speech to the Institute of Public Administration:

“By and large, I believe the public service gives good advice on incremental policy improvement.

“Where we fall down is in long-term, transformational thinking; the big picture stuff. We are still more reactive than proactive; more inward than outward looking. We are allergic to risk, sometimes infected by a culture of timidity.

The [Australian Public Service] still generates too much policy within single departments and agencies to address challenges that span a range of departments and agencies … We are not good at recruiting creative thinkers.”

The Australian government deals with climate, energy, water and food in separate policy silos. Yet at the regional level, the convergence of these issues is all too obvious.

Irrigation companies seeking to save water by converting open, gravity-fed earth channels to pipes and pressurised irrigation systems find their energy consumption trebling or quadrupling, and their escalating carbon emissions placing them in the company of big corporate emitters.

At the regional level, there is great scope to take a more holistic approach by integrating opportunities for renewable energy production into irrigation, water supply and water treatment systems, and to look for complementary ways of reducing carbon emissions while restoring landscape amenity and habitat connectivity.

Innovation, lateral thinking and local partnerships to deliver multiple outcomes are not helped by the centralised Basin Plan.

This is not to say that regional community and industry leaders, working their way through the complexities of correcting decades of over-allocation, can resolve everything locally.

Nor can they institute a carbon price or fix water markets. Inevitably, difficult issues will bubble up that demand resolution by state and federal governments.

Moreover, adjustments would be required in merging diverse catchment plans into a coherent whole at the Basin scale.

But I have no doubt that a bottom-up, regionally-owned process could better resolve most of the core tasks of getting water allocation and management back into balance with the actual amount of water in the system, and of managing environmental water for multiple benefits.

The overall result would be more robust, the resulting plans would be more durable and more likely to be implemented effectively, and the level of community ownership and acceptance across the Basin would be profoundly deeper and broader.

We would be much less likely to see Murray Darling Basin Authority guides being burnt in the street, or the level of antagonism towards public servants in counter-productive “us and them” public meetings, characterised by mutual suspicion and distress.

The big challenges of climate, water, energy and food are converging and intensifying. They won’t go away.

We should be building institutional models that draw on the lessons from 20 years experience of an ambitious policy agenda in natural resource management.

Effective, resilient solutions will require national leadership, buttressed by a solid platform of community understanding, engagement and support.

In rural Australia we are lucky to have a solid foundation for such a platform in the remnants of the Landcare movement and the regional catchment management framework.

Let’s recommit to it, rejuvenate it, nourish it, use it and trust it.

[Reprinted and slightly abridged from the Crikey blog, Rooted, where this article first appeared on November 16. Andrew Campbell manages Triple Helix Consulting. He is a former executive director of Land & Water Australia, and before that a senior executive (SES) officer in the environment portfolio.]