The first casualty in water war

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A photo from 2003 of fresh water flowing through the mouth of the Murray River at Goolwa, South Australia. AAP Image/Gary Juleff Photo by GARY JULEFF

The water wars have broken out in Federal Parliament and, as they say, truth is the first casualty in conflict.

While it has been encouraging to see the prospects of the Murray-Darling Basin being debated at a national level and achieving the prominence it deserves, it has been less edifying to see the not-so-subtle twisting of the issues to accord with political goals.

The outcome, for anyone unfamiliar with the background, is that it seems as though the Murray-Darling Basin has received little or no water under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, that greedy irrigators don’t want to give up 450 gigalitres of water (how much is that, anyway?) and there have been no gains for the basin environment.

Now, we are not accusing anyone of telling outright lies, but there has been some sneaky mischief carried out by some MPs, including those from South Australia.

Centre Alliance MP for Mayo Rebekha Sharkie released a statement with the headline: Mouth of the Murray Communities abandoned as east coast interests reign supreme.

Her opening statement was that less than one per cent of fresh water has been returned to the Murray River in the 10 years of the basin plan.

Never mind that the Murray system doesn’t run into the ‘east coast’ (perhaps she means eastern states), the Murray-Darling Basin Authority can tell us that more than 2000 Gl has been recovered for the environment under the plan, so far.

Nowhere in Ms Sharkie’s press release did she refer to the water already recovered, nor did she refer to the socio-economic test to be applied before the 450 Gl could be removed from consumptive water.

She is most likely following Federal Water Minister’s Tanya Plibersek’ lead, which is to refuse to be drawn on any acknowledgement of the caveat, but to continue to insist that the water will be recovered.

For another speech echoing the same approach, read Senator Karen Grogan (ALP, South Australia) who spoke in the same week about the state of the environment.

Again, railing on the 450 Gl, no acknowledgement of the water already recovered, blaming the 2019 water levels on “drought, over-use and climate change”.

Irrigators are beginning to tire of the florid descriptions of the state of the basin, because after 10 years of the plan, they are asking: if it’s not working, why are we giving up so much water? And, why give up more water if the water already sacrificed is not having any effect?

Can’t have it both ways.

And if there is ‘over-use’, why is South Australia’s capital, outside of the basin, sucking out 100 Gl of water, or more, per year, when it could be turning on its under-used desalination plant?

The water being used to hose down driveways and keep the lawns green could be used to help keep the Murray mouth open. (But wait, didn’t the Murray mouth remain open in 2019-20?)

If we were in any doubt about what the 450 Gl was for, it was dispelled in the Governor-General’s speech to the opening of parliament in which the 450 Gl was promised “for South Australia”. And we thought the plan was for all states?

Of course, there have been environmental gains made in the basin and a cursory inspection of the documents on the MDBA’s website will describe the improvements that have been made to habitat and water quality.

The advances that have been made and the complexities of the basin plan are being lost in the repetitious noise of the debate.