Location, location, location: what was actually wrong with the ‘incorrect’ MDBA report

By Stephen Easton

Friday October 25, 2019

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority needs to be held to account for publishing the “incorrect version” of a report, according to Minister for Water Resources David Littleproud.

The problem was not that anything in the report was incorrect as such, but more that it contained too much accurate information.

The minister asked Murray-Darling Inspector-General Mick Keelty to probe the MDBA’s publishing processes after agricultural lobby groups led a swift and fairly hyperbolic backlash against the first version of a report on efforts to track the “first flush” of rain through parts of the river system.

The MDBA quickly replaced the draft with a slightly different version, and claimed the first was “inadvertently” released.

The report included satellite photos showing dams that filled up during an embargo on pumping water from rivers in those areas; the main problem was that it also contained their precise locations. The MDBA then removed the geographic coordinates and republished the report with a message stating it was “updated to clarify information” shortly after its initial publication.

The authority acknowledged its publication “may have caused unnecessary concern and confusion to landholders” in response to a barrage of unfocused outrage and critical commentary. It is also reviewing its publishing practices internally.

“We want the public to have the full picture on how this happened,” said the Minister for Water Resources David Littleproud in a brief statement announcing the Keelty investigation.

The first version contained no factual errors and neither the agency nor the minister answered directly when The Mandarin asked in what sense it was incorrect.

“The final report does not include geographic coordinates,” said an MDBA spokesperson, when we asked what the key changes were.

The authority says the use of satellite imagery is critical to tracking the first flush of rain through the river system, which was protected by the New South Wales government embargoes and monitored by the MDBA because of its “critical importance to the rivers’ ecological health and to downstream communities struggling with the drought”.

Several prominent critics seemed to suggest none of the information should have been published at all, but the authority is committed to making such data open.

“Publishing this report is in line with the MDBA’s commitment to transparency,” the spokesperson added.

The aggrieved industry representatives and their supporters were worried about the potential consequences of the publication, not because it was incorrect but because it contained too much information. The clearest complaint was that the report was akin to a set of unproven accusations of wrongdoing, and might be misinterpreted as proof that the owners of specific properties had taken water that was not theirs.

The head of one peak body for the irrigated agriculture industry in parts of north-west NSW likened it to the “Aussie Farms activist map” — suggesting the report put landowners or their properties at risk from farm-invading environmental activists.

The first draft made it clear the dams could have filled up legally and made no accusations. It only noted the information was given to the NSW Natural Resources Access Regulator for investigation.

“In the Namoi, the MDBA found that 29 private storages appeared to fill or partially fill during the embargo,” said chief executive Phillip Glyde.

“In the Macquarie, another three private storages were found to fill during the embargo. There are many reasons why a farm dam could have filled quite legally which is why it is important for follow up work to be done on the ground by state compliance officers.”

According to Glyde, farmers, rural communities and the wider public expect cooperation between state and federal agencies when it comes to water management.

The minister hopes the inspector-general’s investigation into the authority’s publishing practices will satisfy those who were angered by the level of detail in the first version of the report.

“The public needs to have confidence in the MDBA and this will hold them to account,” Littleproud said. “Mr Keelty is an eminent Australian who will be tough, but fair in getting to the bottom of this.”

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