Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012

I rise too to speak on the Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012. As a South Australian, and as an irrigator, I understand intimately the importance of a healthy river system, with sufficient water flowing into South Australia to ensure our future. One can only hope that if the South Australian environment is healthy then all the environments of the states upstream will be in a similar condition.

We supported the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, when we eventually got it. We supported the adjustment mechanism to allow the moving up and down of the amount of water that will be available, should it be proven that it is insufficient or too much. We will support this bill. But the attitude that you 'just add water' really does need to be looked at a little bit more carefully. In my opinion, it is not about the amount of water or the numbers; it is about where you get the water from and how you use that water once you have it.

We need to be smarter about delivering the best possible outcomes by taking the least amount of water out of productive use, and by having the least amount of impact on the lives and the assets of the people who rely on the river—the people who produce our food and the people who, like everybody else in this state, have a right to be able to earn a living without having something taken away from them unnecessarily. It is not just by innovating and the like for irrigation practices; it is also about being innovative about a broad range of things that we do to ensure that we deliver the best possible outcome for the least amount of negative impact on our communities.

The water delivered by the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and the additional water that is proposed to be delivered by this bill, does give us a huge opportunity to do much good. We must not waste that opportunity or the water that we are getting. Like so many things, the devil is always in the detail. The ability of the additional water that is identified in this bill to be used effectively will require very, very careful management by those who are entrusted both at a federal level and in the respective states on how they use that water, and what they do with it.

One small example—well, not a small example for the people who were involved—that was highlighted during a Senate hearing into the impacts of the plan was actually raised by the Murray River Action Group. They gave evidence that the impacts of flows of 40,000 megalitres per day in the Kiewa River, upstream from Albury and from releases from the Hume Dam, will have absolutely devastating impacts on their area. We need to remember that these guys are not irrigators, so do not place the blame on irrigators and say, 'Well, you know, the irrigators have taken the water'. These people are actually dryland farmers; they just happen to be in an area where they have had reasonable levels of rainfall so they end up being quite wet dryland farmers. They go on to say in their submission:

Pastures underwater in Spring for long periods of time will result in pastures being totally wiped out for 7 - 8 months at a time …

They refer to the fact that with flows of 40,000 megalitres a day, many bridges and approaches within the district will actually deny access both to their land and their stock.

Obviously, there is an increased risk of exacerbated flood damage. If you are actually doing controlled releases of water at a time that you get high rainfall, then all of a sudden you have turned what was apparently going to be a controlled flood into something that could be entirely devastating to the region. It is not just the things I have said above about loss of access and loss of crop but also loss of livestock.

Another thing: we are talking about looking after the environment. There are huge red gum forests up there, and red gum forests that spend their lives with wet feet, which potentially could happen, actually will die, so we will have a negative environmental impact. That was just one example from a community that is along the Murray-Darling river system.
I suppose one thing that we really do need to note in all this is the issue of compensation. It is not the government that pays compensation; it is actually the taxpayers of Australia who pay that compensation. So we need to be very, very careful that we cover ourselves off and that we do not actually cause a worse set of problems by trying to solve one problem.

That is just one example. Further downstream, the removal of constraints does have the potential to have a major impact. Like a chain, the river is only as strong as its weakest link. By removing these constraints we have a very serious potential that we could cause other problems. I would really like the department to answer, 'Does anybody really know what the impacts of an 80,000 megalitre-a-day flow at the South Australian border is going to mean for the upstream states?'

You have to remember that this water is being released from dams at the top end of the system. It is not just being caused by run-off from rain along the entire river system, so the water is not gathering as it comes down; it is actually one lump that is being let go. Another example is: how are the suggested quantities of water that are coming down from these upstream reservoirs going to get past such natural impediments as the Barmah Choke? All of these issues need to be addressed before we try and stuff all this water down our river corridor. The taxpayers of Australia have stumped up an awful lot of money for this reform package, and they will stump up a whole heap more before it is finished. But already we are starting to see that some of our state governments are seeing it as a way of reducing their commitment to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. We need to deal with this issue now.

One of the issues that has resulted from this reduction of funding coming out of the states is very close to the heart of many people in South Australia—that is, the Native Fish Strategy. Minister Burke last year announced that the Native Fish Strategy would not be funded from the middle of this year. This has occurred, according to his department, because the state governments have reduced their funding. In particular, he said that New South Wales had reduced its funding, which had normally triggered the dollar-for-dollar funding that would normally go into this strategy; hence, if the New South Wales government and the South Australian governments were not going to put the funding into this strategy then the federal department was not going to either. Given that native fish populations are a true indicator of the health of a river system, surely, with all of this money that the taxpayers of Australia have put up to try and achieve a healthy river system, there is the capacity in the project mix that we have put forward to allow this small amount of money—we are talking a couple of million dollars a year—to continue.

Such a program provides critical support across the whole of the basin—it is not just a state activity—and it delivers a huge amount of positive outcomes for the basin: the restoration of the riverine connectivity, advances in integrated pest management, the delivery of demonstration reaches across the basin, the initiation of knowledge generation projects, the harmonisation of fisheries management and related natural resource regimes, and community education and engagement. Native fish populations and fish communities basin wide remain severely depleted, and to stop this program now just does not make any sense to me. Demonstrably healthy river native fish populations are a key signal to the basin's human communities and the Australian people that the river is healthy and that the management of the river is being effective. So, once again, it is a very easy and effective way for us to check whether the projects being put forward and the delivery of this Basin Plan and its associated instruments are actually working. Achieving a healthy, working Murray-Darling Basin Plan requires a broader focus than just water management. Without the support of these complementary management actions we will be wasting the opportunity to maximise the outcomes of the water that this very bill seeks to deliver.

Another way that we can achieve the best outcomes is through encouragement of innovation. In the electorate in which I live, we have an example where the community has positively embraced the action to look after the river. The Loxton Waikerie council is a small council in the Riverland of South Australia and on their own, off their own bat, they took up the initiative of constructing a 25-megalitre dam in the town of Loxton to capture the town's stormwater. The council hopes that this dam will not just reduce the town's reliance on the Murray for its water but take it completely off the system. A similar project has been planned for Waikerie, the other major town within this council area. This $9.5 million project has significant benefits for the local community. It certainly takes off the draw on the river. It increases the knowledge bank within the community. It increases the capacity of that community to manage flood mitigation during times of high volume, and it also gives them the opportunity to manage their own land management plans in a much more effective and innovative way.

There are myriad projects that we could be looking at that would enable the water that is being recovered here and returned to the river environment to be used and maximised. In South Australia we were lucky enough to get $265 million from the federal government towards a project which has been referred to as the Water Industry Alliance. I would like to acknowledge that eventually, after many, many years of the South Australian community demanding recognition for the fact that they have been the most responsible water users in the basin forever—

Honourable senators interjecting—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Ludlam): Order, Senators! Senator Ruston still has a few minutes left on the clock. Could we keep the chatter to a minimum.

Senator RUSTON: With recognition of the irrigation water efficiency and things like the compliance on the water cap in South Australia, we have been really quite delighted to see that after seven years we have been acknowledged for it. In the acknowledgement of this and the allocation of the $265 million, we have seen the capacity for us to spend money that otherwise would have been allocated to either specific water-saving infrastructure upgrades or water buybacks and put it to better use on projects that will increase the efficiency of agricultural productivity within the region. We are looking forward to seeing the outcome of the process of defining what those projects are through the Water Industry Alliance. The fact that this 450 gigalitres of additional water will not be secured by buyback is a huge relief for the people of South Australia. The plan and this bill are supported because they can do good, and we must make sure that they do do good, by implementing the plan in such a way that the beneficial outcomes are maximised for all stakeholders: the environment, the economy and the river communities that rely on it so heavily.

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