Ms CATE FAEHRMAN: The Murray-Darling Basin Plan came about because of a series of environmental crises that jolted a nation into action.What happened next is nothing short of criminal.
In the 1980s irrigators started buying up thousands of hectares of land in the basin, developing enormous off-river storage cells displacing the pastoralism that had dominated the previous 100 years. Locals told stories of rivers running backwards when the irrigators turned their pumps on, of the rapid degradation of the plains and rivers and of "some very close liaisons that developed between some Water Resources officials and large irrigators." In 1991 a toxic blue-green algae bloom stretched over 1,000 kilometres of the Darling River. Thousands of livestock dropped dead and landholders were warned not to touch or drink the water for fear of "horrendous internal injuries".
A state of emergency was declared. Excessive water extractions by cotton irrigators was the cause. Intense scrutiny and public debate led to a round of water reforms with a view to consider the needs of the rivers themselves, not just extractors. In New South Wales this led to the Water Management Act 2000, which introduced water sharing plans with a small share of water allocated to environmental flows. The millennium drought triggered more water reform, ultimately establishing the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the plan. The plan was developed to secure the long-term ecological health of the basin in the face of over-allocation, prolonged drought and climate change. But the plan was quickly subverted by irrigators, who infamously burned copies of the guide to the plan and shouted abuse at public servants at a Town Hall meeting in Griffith. The Federal Government distanced itself from the Murray‑Darling Basin Authority and State governments withdrew the necessary funding for implementing the plan.
Despite the science suggesting that a healthy river required overall water entitlements to be reduced by, ideally, 7,600 gigalitres—and 3,000 gigalitres at a bare minimum—in the end it was just 2,750 gigalitres. Irrigators were handed massive grants to build infrastructure under the Water Efficiency Program for the stated purpose of saving irrigation water and sharing those water savings between the environment and the irrigator. It has been a disaster. The $4 billion spent so far has resulted in a massive expansion of irrigation operations and a huge increase in water extractions from the basin.
Webster Limited received $40 million to build dams in the flattest part of New South Wales and completely transform the Hay floodplains, while Murrumbidgee Irrigation received the largest share of funding to upgrade channels and pipes to deliver water to parts of the basin that should never be farmed. In the best‑case scenario, the water going to the environment is less than half of what the Government claims. In the worst‑case scenario, the amount of environmental water has actually declined as a result of the taxpayer subsidies.
The scheme was lauded as delivering huge benefits for the environment and communities along the entire basin but, instead, the Murray‑Darling Basin Authority, with the approval of State and Federal governments, handed over billions of taxpayer dollars to massive agribusiness to use more water, not less. Let us not forget that in 2012 Bourke cotton lobbyist Ian Cole convinced then Minister for Primary Industries, Katrina Hodgkinson, to change the rules so that larger pumps could take even more water out of the river for the Barwon‑Darling water sharing plan. Worse, if cotton growers did not reach their legal allocation due to lack of water, they could take their allocation for the next three years while protections of environmental water, particularly low flows, were dropped.
Look at what has happened. As we head into an unimaginable summer the ecological crisis confronting us dwarves the one that triggered water reforms in the basin almost 30 years ago—millions of fish dead, hundreds of kilometres of dying rivers, farmers leaving the land, too many towns to count reaching day zero, fires burning the Macquarie Marshes and communities at breaking point. What do The Nationals' John Barilaro and Melinda Pavey say? They say we should scrap the plan; build even more dams, despite the devastation they have already wreaked; call environmental flows "wasted" water; and ignore climate change. That is that same old 1970s thinking when the environment did not get a look in. Look where that got us. When you treat nature with disdain, when you trash rivers to benefit your party's big donors at the expense of downstream communities, when you ignore recommendations from independent experts and your own department's scientists, it comes back to bite you hard. That is exactly what is happening and it is a bloody disgrace.