Water Journal : Water Journal May 2012
44 MAY 2012 water feature articles public address Moving Away from the Political Tug O' War As the debate still rages over the proposed Murray-Darling Basin Plan, the following speech made last month by MDBA Chair Craig Knowles to the Farm Writers' Association of NSW outlines the main points of contention and concedes that you can't please all of the people all of the time. We are now at the pointy end of the development of a Plan for the Murray-Darling Basin. Right now, the various and disparate groups who either want to stop the plan dead in its tracks or who want to argue that the plan doesn't do enough, are jockeying for position as we begin to turn for home. The States are in there arguing their traditional cases: South Australia threatening High Court action, demanding more water; NSW and Victoria arguing that no more be done because of the inevitable social and economic impact. And it's exactly why the Basin Authority needs to exist. Let me start with three simple assertions: 1. The worst possible outcome is that there is no plan -- that is, the status quo prevails; 2. The risks associated with what we propose in our Draft Plan will be far less than the uncertainty and risks associated with no plan; 3.Weneedtomakeastartanddoitinawaythatletsuscheck how we are travelling as we go along. Over the past 12 months, we've travelled across the Basin to cities and towns to meet with many thousands of individuals, groups and governments who have an interest in how water is managed in the Murray-Darling Basin. It won't surprise you to learn that the disparity of views and the political tug-o-war over the Basin's water resources remains well and truly entrenched after a century of failure to find agreement. We've heard good ideas about how we can do things better. We've heard concerns about how changes will affect industries and communities. And we've heard arguments as to why there should be either more or less water recovered for the environment. Situation normal! And while we can take on board many of the ideas and suggestions we have heard, with such disparate views, we recognise we will never meet all the needs and wishes of every individual, group and government. Interest groups and governments will continue to fight for what they want, and "experts" will continue to produce studies and arguments to support their claims. But at the end of the day, this is not about satisfying interest groups or lobbyists or even the individual demands of the State and Territory Governments. It's about building a balanced model to manage the Basin -- keep it in good health, make it more resilient for the next inevitable drought and underpin its capacity to continue to produce food and fibre. It's also recognising we have to manage in a context. Mostly for good reason, we as Australians have altered the natural state of the Murray--Darling Basin. We've built dams on our rivers and bridges across them. We've built towns on flood plains and it's the flood plains where we grow our food and fibre crops. Our plan recognises these changes. They are real. They form a part of our National Circumstance. Our plan does not attempt to take us back to pre-European times. For some that's a disappointment. For most of us it represents the reality of the altered state of the Basin. The alterations have created legitimate and, indeed, legal constraints to water management and water flow regimes. We manage within those constraints. We also recognise that constraints can change and that there are many different ways of managing water to achieve similar outcomes. It's why we argue the need for an adaptive management approach -- that is, an ability to apply new knowledge over time and be willing to change as information and evidence might suggest. And, it is why we reject the simplistic notion that a plan for the Murray-Darling Basin is just about a volume of water. Let me assure you, if this were just about a volume of water, be it 4,000GL, 2,750GL, 2,000GL, or indeed any other number, there would be no need for a plan for the Murray-Darling Basin. All that would be required is for the Commonwealth Government to stand in the market with its cheque book and buy the required amount -- they don't need a plan to do that, and it's the cheapest cost option -- buy licences, take water out of communities, not invest in infrastructure, and not pursue opportunities to get smarter with how we use the precious resource. Of course what happens next, in such a scenario, would be potentially catastrophic for the social and economic fabric of the Basin, the productivity capacity of our Nation, and the environmental health of our rivers and wetlands throughout the Murray-Darling. It's why we argue for a package that has a bias toward infrastructure investment, a more efficient rules framework, an adaptive change process with time to implement and check points along the way. There are some who argue that infrastructure options are too expensive and that buyback is the only way to go. "No Plan" delivers that result. What "No Plan" also means is that we are stuck with the divergent water management regimes of the State and Territory Governments with no coordination and no level playing field, but with the added overlay of the Commonwealth purchasing water through its buyback program. We know, as John Howard did, that the State-based management models have passed their "use-by" date. Tony Windsor's Inquiry also highlighted that the multitude of rules, operating procedures, barriers to trade, and multiple water products built up over 150 years is less than efficient.
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