Sunday, 30 July 2017

Australia's future water security losing out in the water wars

ABC News, 24 July 2017:

Billions of litres of water purchased by taxpayers to save Australia's inland rivers is instead being harvested by some irrigators to boost cotton-growing operations, in a policy failure that threatens to undermine the $13 billion Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

The pumping of this environmental water means taxpayers have in some cases been effectively subsidising already wealthy agricultural interests, including those of Webster Limited, a publicly-traded company which holds a $300 million water portfolio — the largest Australian-owned private holding in the country.

A Four Corners investigation has found that in the Barwon-Darling system — a critical link in the wider Murray-Darling Basin — NSW Government water extraction rules have given irrigators more reliable access to water than prior to 2012 when the Basin Plan was signed.

Long-time farmers' advocate Mal Peters, who chaired a Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) statutory committee examining the Barwon-Darling, described the rules as "bloody disgusting".

"It rendered the whole plan, in my mind, completely null and void because the amount of water that could be taken out was huge," he said.

University of New South Wales scientist Richard Kingsford said the revelation "goes against the whole tenet of the [Basin] Plan".

"Environmental water bought by taxpayers is going through pumps into storages to grow cotton, and to me that is the biggest problem that we've currently got," he said.

Between 2012 and June this year, more than 74 billion litres of environmental water has flowed into the Barwon-Darling system — including when the controversial 2012 extraction rules allowed irrigators to pump it.

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority is explicitly aware of these concerns.

In July last year, the MDBA board held private discussions on the problem.

Board member George Warne emailed minutes from this discussion to other board members, including Phillip Glyde, the MDBA chief executive.

His email, seen by Four Corners, described the policies in the Barwon-Darling as an issue which "appears to enable gaming of water extractions ... enabling much higher use of water".

The email also acknowledged "water use behaviours that effectively mine the E-flows that make it into the Barwon-Darling".

These "E-flows" are those that taxpayers had purchased through so-called "buybacks" to save the river system.

Since John Howard announced the Murray-Darling initiative, taxpayers have spent more than $3 billion on water buybacks.

Graziers and townspeople downstream who rely on the river have expressed anger and dismay at the extraction rules, claiming they have seen the river diminish since the new policies were introduced in 2012.

This is what the Murray-Darling Basin Authority states of itself:

With the enactment of the Water Act 2007, the Murray–Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) was established as an independent expertise-based statutory agency.

For the first time in the Basin's history, one Basin-wide institution is responsible for planning the Basin's water resources, with all planning decisions made in the interest of the Basin as a whole….

We are responsible for directing the sharing of the River Murray's water on behalf of the Basin states. The Murray–Darling Agreement, (a schedule of the Water Act 2007) spells out these arrangements.

Under the Agreement, we operate the River Murray system and oversee asset management (Dartmouth and Hume Dam, Lake Victoria, Lower Lake barrages, weirs and locks) with our state partners.

The Authority has over three hundred employees and is headquartered in Canberra.

As the MDBA declares it is responsible for planning decisions and directing water sharing its governing body and the federal water minister have some explaining to do.

The six member Murray–Darling Basin Authority governing body having responsibility for the authority living up to its mandate:

Neil Andrew AO (Chair) – former Liberal MP in the federal parliament, current Chairman of the Crawford Fund in Australia and Commissioner to the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research
Phillip Glyde Chief Executive – former Deputy Secretary at the Department of Agriculture
Professor Barry Hart director of environmental consulting company Water Science Pty Ltd and emeritus professor at Monash University 
Ms Dianne Davidson – farmer, agricultural scientist and horticulturalist
Mr George Warne – current chairman of construction company Lipman Pty Ltd, former CEO and Project Director of the Northern Victorian Irrigation Renewal Program, former general manager at Murray Irrigation Limited and former CEO State Water New South Wales
Ms Susan Madden – a principal economist at international consulting firm GHD Pty Ltd engineering, architecture, environmental and construction services to private and public sector clients

Portfolio responsibility for the MDBA is held by Australian Deputy-Prime Minister, Water Minister, and Nationals MP for New England Barnaby Joyce.

Aside from the limitations imposed by having the inept Barnaby Joyce as water minister, a hint as to why this body appears to be dragging its feet over the issue (of improper use of ‘buy back’ and state-gifted waters earmarked for environmental flows) might be found in this exchange previously reported by “Four Corners”.

For better irrigation and for better farming. I mean I just I'm sorry I can't see what's evil about that, I have real trouble understanding why anyone would object to a farmer using the water smarter and better to grow more crops and do it better, I mean has the world gone mad.

This attitude is far from unique and threatens the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

ABC News, 24 July 2017:
The top water bureaucrat in NSW, Gavin Hanlon, has been secretly recorded offering to confidentially share internal government information with irrigation lobbyists — documents he proposed to strip of government logos and share via a special Dropbox account — to assist their lobbying against the contentious Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
The recording of the 2016 teleconference also reveals the NSW Government has been actively considering plans, in discussion with irrigators, to abandon the Basin Plan altogether, and has sought legal advice about doing so.
A Four Corners investigation has confirmed that Mr Hanlon, Deputy Director General of the NSW Department of Primary Industries, did not approve a major operation targeting non-compliant irrigators in the north of NSW — an operation urged upon him by his own investigators after they collected evidence that billions of litres of water had been improperly pumped.
"I think that it was clear that there was no appetite for compliance anymore," said Jamie Morgan, who until midway through 2016 managed the department's Strategic Investigations Unit.
"It was odd timing in my view. It was only when we went to the north-west of the state, where we found significant problems, that our team was very quickly disbanded after that.
"Our briefings weren't being answered. And to this day, no-one has actually addressed those issues in that area."
It should come as no surprise that at the heart of the biggest gamer of the Murray-Darling Plan, Webster Limited, is that epitome of far-right, free market greed Chris Corrigan who is this corporation's Chair.

The principal connnection 180 year-old Webster Limited now has to Murray-Darling Basin land under Corrigan is the 200,000 megalitre water entitlement it harvests and can sell-off at will for maximum profit.

Nor should it come as any surprise that the NSW Berejiklian Government supports Corrigan and Webster as well as the other water raiders under the guise of supporting "real world" decisions.
North Coast Voices readers may recall that irrigators, mining corporations and local governments in the Basin region have more than once turned rapacious eyes towards the NSW Northern Rivers, proposing to dam and divert coastal waters for their use.
Proposals which have been strenuously rejected by local communities and Far North Coast councils.

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