‘Water reform in Australia has stopped!’ Not my words, but those of Prof John Williams, founding member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, opening his keynote dinner address at the recent Goyder Institute Water Forum. He got the attention of the audience of water professionals in an instant! His audience had all been a part of the water reform agenda as far back as 1994, when the first national guidelines were agreed, and since 2004 when the National Water Initiative was signed. The Millenium drought and the crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin led to the Water Act 2007 and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, as well as the National Water Commission.
On the basis of the National Water Initiative, Australia proudly proclaimed itself a world leader in water reform, and has hosted dozens of international delegations wanting to learn from our experience, as well as taking our ‘know-how’ overseas. The National Water Commission coordinated ground-breaking work on water trading, water efficiency, improved irrigation technologies, more efficient governance and sound water planning. The existence of the water trading market saved many communities in the drought, allowing holders of annual allocations to decide not to plant annual crops but to sell their water to farmers with permanent plantings which needed to be kept alive. While there was significant bankruptcy and farm closure during the drought, many irrigators were able to adjust their operations and overall production value stayed at a similar level to pre-drought, using approximately 30% of water volume, indicating room for major efficiencies in future water use.
The National Water Commission was required to undergo assessment every two years, and publish a report card. Its final report card to the Australian Government in 2014 anticipated the next phase of reform work and called on the government to build on the good groundwork achieved by re-committing to the major work still needed to wind back over-allocation of water resources, to promote efficiency of urban water design and re-use, to include mining impacts on groundwater and to include the impacts of climate change, which is predicted to significantly reduce volumes of available water in the future. Instead, the Australian Government disbanded the National Water Commission, split its functions across several departments and disbanded the CoAG Standing Council on Agriculture and Water.
In 2006, Prime Minister John Howard and Water Minister Malcolm Turnbull promised $10 billion to fix the problems with water-sharing across Australia, and particularly for the Murray-Darling Basin. In 2017, the draft Murray-Darling Basin Plan is now under attack by upstream irrigators arguing that they will suffer unacceptable pain and hardship if they have to return water to keep the Basin rivers healthy enough to support all communities. The national Water Minister is now also the Agriculture Minister (and the Deputy Prime Minister) and he is supporting the irrigators in his local community over downstream communities. The former Water Minister is now the Prime Minister and says the Deputy Prime Minister is the best man to make the critical decisions around how water is shared in the Murray-Darling Basin. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority is supposed to be independent but has been overwhelmed by critical submissions from upstream irrigation communities claiming dire consequences if they have to give up any water.
The independent voice of the National Water Commission has been closed down. John William’s solution is that we need to fund a new independent body which can oversee a decadal water plan for Australia, with funding for strategic research to support evidence-based planning which incorporates predicted impacts of climate change. national guidelines need to be updated, recycling water for potable re-use needs to be on the agenda and groundwater needs to be managed as an integral and inter-linked part of available water sources.
Nature delivered flood flows in 2010-12 which kick-started recovery, and another brief flood in 2016 has reinforced the growth response. However, there is a very long way to go to repair the lasting damage of the Millenium drought inflicted on river ecosystems which had greatly reduced resilience due to five decades of water extraction. The Murray-Darling Basin still needs water recovery as outlined in the Basin Plan, it is not ‘doing alright’, it is still in recovery mode and needs up to 20 years for seedlings generated by the 2010-12 floods to reach maturity and produce seeds for the next generation.