MDBA board: don't let water-sharing plan go down the gurgler

By The Mandarin

February 21, 2018

The independent board of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has urged all parties to the historic water-sharing agreement not to let “one-sided perspectives” prevail over “genuine science” in a statement published this week. 

  • The MDBA is disappointed in the decision by the federal opposition and Greens to block amendments to the agreement, recommended by its Northern Basin Review in 2016.
  • Those amendments would give New South Wales irrigators more water and put smaller environmental releases into the river system.

The MDBA board members do not comment, however, on the reasons that federal politicians are holding back on giving NSW extra water — serious issues including weak compliance activities and the appearance that the state’s public servants have helped its farmers get more than their fair share. An ombudsman’s report partly blamed two decades of regular machinery-of-government changes.

The MDBA’s full statement reads:

Natural resources management is the science, economics and policy of providing access to our natural resources, like water, on a sustainable basis—so that the many and varied benefits that flow from that access today are also available to future generations.

It is a self-evidently good and deceptively simple concept.

The reality is infinitely more complex and challenging.

The Murray–Darling Basin Plan exists to fairly and sustainably manage the natural resources of a vast and vital ecosystem—so that system will still exist to benefit future generations. The Basin covers an area that is larger than France and Germany combined, is home to more than two million people and provides drinking water to a million more outside the Basin. It generates one third of our nation’s agricultural production, sustains hundreds of fantastically diverse floodplain wetlands and native species, and involves six different governments.

While others may be able to adopt a deliberately singular view, or manipulate information to serve their own interests, the task of the MDBA in implementing the Basin Plan is to balance fiercely competing interests and passionately held beliefs—by using strong science, evidence and expert judgement.

That is why the MDBA was established as an independent, science-led and evidence-driven organisation—because the task of implementing the visionary, long-term Basin Plan was too important to risk it being captive to any one perspective.

We based our recommended Amendments for the northern Basin on four years of thorough research and extensive consultation. Our work was scrutinised through peer-review by independent experts, and found to be robust. The resulting Amendments were agreed by all Basin states and the Commonwealth, along with a ‘toolkit’ of associated measures to improve environmental outcomes, including through stronger protections for environmental and small flows.

We believe we got the balance right for the environment, Basin communities and industry.

To date, and to their great credit, all parties involved in the implementation of the Basin Plan have been united by the shared belief that decision-making about the Basin must be based on the best available science and evidence.

It is this shared belief that has bound all parties, despite their differing interests and viewpoints, and been at the heart of the consensus that has allowed the Plan to work.

We, the Authority members, are deeply concerned that disallowance of these Amendments may be a sign that one-sided perspectives are prevailing over genuine science, comprehensive evidence and balance in the debate over the future of the Murray–Darling Basin.

We are also concerned that this may cause a rift in the bipartisanship, consensus and compromise that have characterised the Basin Plan’s implementation to date.

We call upon all those involved to consider how far we have come over the past 10 years, and how much we stand to lose.

We must remember that the Basin Plan arose from an urgent need to protect the future of the Basin system, and the communities that depend upon it.

It was agreed by hard-won consensus among all Basin governments and the Commonwealth.

Successive governments, both state and Commonwealth, have repeatedly reaffirmed their commitment to the Plan. This kind of enduring consensus is almost unheard of, and we fear that should it be broken now, it would never be recaptured—much to the detriment of the Basin and its communities.

Implementing the Plan is not easy and not without challenges—however, it remains our nation’s best pathway for securing the future of this vital shared resource.

The Parliament is still to consider the disallowance of Amendments affecting the southern Basin. We hope that all parties will take into account the peer-reviewed science and evidence based work of the MDBA when considering these Amendments, and consider what is at stake.

Basin Plan limits on water take become legally binding in mid-2019. We are on the verge of realising the full extent of the benefits promised by the Plan.

We believe the collapse of the Basin Plan would be a disaster for the future of the river system and its communities.

We urge all parties to stay the course.

The Hon Neil Andrew AO

Phillip Glyde

Professor Barry Hart AM

Dianne Davidson AM

Susan Madden

George Warne

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