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Published: 30 July 2019   •   Opinion pieces

For over 20 years governments have been adapting and updating policies and programs to answer the Australian community's call for a healthy river system in the Murray–Darling Basin.

As we face the real prospect of a deepening drought this year I hear and respect the growing calls to make sure the water that has been recovered from farmers and returned to the environment is actually delivering the benefits the community was promised.

The story starts back in 2002, 10 years before the Basin Plan was legislated, when governments co-invested in The Living Murray, a $950-million program designed to recover water and build environmental works to save six 'icon' sites along the Murray River. Seventeen years on and the results show what clever and careful application of water for the environment and use of works can achieve when used to support specific, internationally significant areas.

For example, back in 2006/07 in the grip of the millennium drought, fewer than 24 per cent of the ecological objectives we wanted to achieve for waterbirds, vegetation and river dependent animals, like frogs, were met in the Barmah-Millewa forest. Fast-forward 10 years and we're now achieving more than 75 per cent of the objectives for birds, native fish and river dependent animals. Vegetation still has a way to go to catch up.

Results for the Lower Lakes, Coorong and Murray Mouth follow a similar pattern, although these sites were heavily impacted by the millennium drought and are only slowly recovering. Without the application of water for the environment in the past five years, flows would have been so low in the Lower Lakes that we would have seen a re-emergence of an ecological crisis with acid sulphate soils, increased salinity and heavy metal levels in water way below drinking water standards.

This was, and remains, good and useful work that we are building on into the future.

Across the Basin we're looking to build on the expertise we've generated through The Living Murray so we can make water for the environment work harder and deliver for the whole system. And we're doing it. Environmental water holders have been working together to avoid the tragedy of further fish deaths in the north of the Basin by releasing water to provide refuges for native fish along a 1,000 km stretch. In the southern Basin there is joint watering action underway to improve water quality and food sources ahead of the breeding season for native fish and waterbirds that doesn't only target one site but can benefit 2,000 kilometres of river all the way to the Mouth.

I am aware that there are those who think there is too much focus on sending 'water out to sea'. I would counter with two arguments. The first is that widespread acidification of the Lower Lakes would be an environmental and cultural catastrophe and averting this is a key reason we now have a Basin Plan, agreed with bipartisan support by six governments. Secondly, water for the environment should be protected through the whole system so it can provide benefits all the way along. Site-specific watering cannot return the Basin's thousands of kilometres of rivers to good health.

There is more work to do to make sure we can provide environmental benefits at the basin scale. In the north it means establishing the rules and processes to protect water from extraction as it passes between catchments and making sure they are reflected in the water resource plans put forward to the Australian Water Minister for accreditation.

In the southern Basin, states have already changed some rules so we can make better use of environmental water. In 2017/18, for example, 355 gigalitres of water for the environment was released down the Goulburn River. The water was used every step of the way. On its way to the sea it watered Gunbower Creek, Hattah Lakes and Lindsay-Mulcra-Wallpolla, connecting rivers and improving wetlands along the journey. About 90 per cent of the original 355 gigalitres made it all the way down to the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth where it finally pushed salt out to sea.

There is much more to do across the Basin to legislate the arrangements and to ensure we can better vary flows to mimic nature. But what we shouldn't lose sight of is just how far we have come in a relatively short period of time—from watering specific sites to delivering environmental benefits across the entire Basin. With The Living Murray it took time before we could see the results. And it will be years before we can point to a system-wide response from the watering that environmental water holders are undertaking now. But I think the change in focus is a huge leap forward and deserves to be supported.


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