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Published: 24 July 2019   •   Speeches and transcripts

Thanks very much Michael, and thank you Cotton Australia for the invitation to speak  here in Griffith today.

Can I first of all acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet today, the Wiradjuri people, and pay my respects to their elders past and present, and offer similar respect to any Aboriginal people in the audience today.

I also acknowledge all of those people across the Basin who are struggling with the drought. Just last week, the Bureau of Meteorology said the current dry conditions in the northern Basin were the worst 30-month period the Basin has seen in 120 years of rainfall records.

The current drought conditions will be having a big impact on cotton production. But from the outset, I'd like to recognise the amazing contribution cotton growers have made to improved water efficiency in this country.

As I mentioned in my speech to your national conference last year, Australia's cotton farmers are the most water efficient growers in the world. You understand the concept of making every drop count.

I acknowledge the substantial contribution your industry makes to Australian agriculture, and to the Australian economy overall, and to say thank you for the hard work you have done to improve your water efficiency and to play your part in Australia's water reforms.

When it comes to water reform, I strongly believe the role and contribution of farmers and irrigators is often overlooked, under estimated and dismissed in the wider public discussion. Ultimately a healthy working Basin requires contributions from everyone.

Now it is nice to be back here in Griffith. This is a wonderful Basin town and a community that continues to thrive and grow. We'll be opening an office here by the end of the year, as well as offices in Mildura and Murray Bridge.

VALUES

Today, I want to speak about the progress of the Basin Plan, dispel some of the misinformation out there, and look to the ongoing challenges, including the persistent drought.

But it is worth taking a moment to consider what it is we are trying to protect.

The Murray–Darling Basin is a truly iconic part of this country.

It is Australia's foodbowl, it is our home, and it is our playground. And it has made an indelible mark on our history, our culture, and our national identity.

It is home to more than 48 Aboriginal nations – from the Coorong to Lake Mungo and to Brewarrina and its ancient fish traps – where there is clear evidence of more than 40,000 years of human history that makes our Aboriginal cultures the oldest continuing cultures in the world.

In the 19th century, the Basin was our colonial frontier, west of the Great Divide - where explorers like, Burke and Wills, Hume and Hovel, and Charles Sturt carved their names into history;

Where bushrangers – Ben Hall, John Gilbert, Captain Thunderbolt, Ned Kelly, roamed, robbed and at times killed in defiance of distant authority;

Where writers Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson wrote about life, struggles and characters, from the Darling, the Murray, from Hay, Booligal and Walgett—of the Man from Ironbark and the Man from Snowy River—who are all part of our Australian folklore and legends. Both knew the Basin well.

Put simply, the Murray–Darling Basin is more than the total of the facts and figures.

When Australians think of the Bush, we're thinking of the Basin. It is Australia's heart. It is us. It is worth saving.

The statistics, however, are also impressive.

The Basin is the size of Germany and France combined, or four times the size of New Zealand.

It is where Australians live, work and play.

It is home to more than 2.6 million people, and it is the main water source for more than 3 million people.

The Basin's 23 rivers support 30,000 wetlands, including 16 of international significance, 46 species of native fish, 120 species of waterbirds and our unique river vegetation, including the world's largest river red gum forest at Barmah-Millewa.

Visitors to the Basin generate more than $8 billion a year through tourism, supporting 10,000 jobs. Recreational fishing in the Basin is worth around $1 billion each year.

And of course it is home to 35,000 farms, which generate $24 billion of production – 41 per cent of Australia's gross agricultural production. Around 90 per cent of Australia's cotton is grown in the Basin.

The Basin's 9,500 irrigation businesses generate more than $8.6 billion a year of food and fibre -- 46 per cent of irrigated production in Australia comes from the Basin.

It is no wonder the Basin is so highly valued by Australians and that there is so much active debate, and at times intense scrutiny, about what we are doing to protect it.

SCRUTINY

The MDBA welcomes the debate. We welcome scrutiny, and we welcome practical suggestions and input about how we can improve the plan.

As head of the MDBA, I get plenty of advice as I travel around the Basin – some of it helpful, some not to so helpful, some of it impossible.

But one message constantly resonates above all others — We all want to restore the Basin to health.

We all want a healthy, thriving Basin for future generations to enjoy. We all want healthy rivers, healthy sustainable agriculture, healthy thriving communities.

That's exactly why the Basin Plan was developed. To save the Basin, to restore our rivers, to support our communities, and to revitalise our wetlands, our environment, our native fish, our birds and wildlife. All while maintaining the Basin's productive base.

Every day we hear calls for more transparency. There is a real thirst for more information out there. But critics do us a disservice when they say we are not transparent, we are not open, and that we are somehow stifling debate when we correct misunderstandings.

The Murray–Darling Basin Plan is already one of Australia's most scrutinised pieces of public policy.

It took more than four years of tough negotiation and discussion to develop a Plan that could garner wide support.

Since 2010, the Plan has been examined by nine separate federal Parliamentary inquiries and several state-based inquiries. A Senate inquiry is currently underway.

Our website has links to about 70 further independent reports and inquiries into elements of the plan.

We've had the South Australian Royal Commission. And we've just had a comprehensive review by the Productivity Commission.

At the same time, the ACCC publishes annual reports on water monitoring and water markets, - the last one published on June 24 - and is being tasked with a new inquiry into aspects of the water markets.

All of this is publicly available on our website.

IMPROVEMENTS

The data shows that agriculture and irrigation have continued to grow in the Basin since the plan was introduced, although at a slower pace than the rest of Australia.

In May of this year the Australian Bureau of Statistics figures found the value of irrigated agriculture in the Basin for 2017-18 was $8.6 billion, compared to $6.8 billion before the Basin Plan.

They found that total agricultural production in the basin was $23.7 billion in 2017-18, compared to $18.6 billion before the Basin Plan.

The Basin's population has also increased, by around 90,000 people. Medium and large centres are increasing, but smaller communities are still struggling.

The threat of salinity has receded. Improvements in salinity have provided a net benefit of around $5 million a year to water users, including irrigation farmers.

MIS-PERCEPTIONS

In my view, many of the calls for more scrutiny and more transparency have stemmed from some of the misperceptions about what is actually happening.

This is understandable. Because often the realities of water management seem to be different to what people are seeing and experiencing. I accept that water management can at times be counter-intuitive.

Water management and the Basin Plan are complex and can be confusing.

But I cannot accept various interest groups pushing information that is just plain wrong.

An example is "why do the rivers run so high at times of such severe drought?"

Common sense would suggest that rivers would naturally be running lower with drought, low inflows and limited water availability. But last year, the opposite was true.

The drought conditions meant the majority of water available to entitlement holders in the Murray was the water being held in the major storages—in Hume and Dartmouth Dam. Many irrigators had sensibly planned ahead and used carryover provisions to store water for just such an occasion.

When the drought delivered no rain, low inflows and the hottest summer on record, irrigators called on their stored water allocations to support their crops. That meant the Murray System was run at full regulated capacity for a prolonged period, to get the water through to those who had ordered water.

For NSW general security irrigators without carryover, watching these sustained flows go down the river was very painful. But the reality is that all the water flowing in the river had already been allocated and was being delivered as ordered.

Another of the recurring misconceptions is that all the flows in the Murray over spring and early summer was water for the environment which was released simply to go out to sea in South Australia. This is incorrect.

Only a small proportion of the flows in the Murray last spring and early summer was water for the environment – around six per cent overall.

And water released for the environment is well managed by federal and state environmental water holders to deliver multiple environmental benefits.

It waters valuable wetlands, supports crucial fish habitats, improves river connectivity, it washes nutrients down the river—all as it travels through the system and well before it reaches the Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth.

FOUR CORNERS ALLEGATIONS

Another misperception is the suggestion that an expansion of land being prepared for cultivation automatically means an increase in water being used for irrigation. This was a central allegation of the recent Four Corners program.

The reality is again different.

The irrigation efficiency programs referred to by Four Corners have resulted in savings of 700 gigalitres of water. This is real water – in the form of legal entitlements that are now owned by the Commonwealth. Hilton Taylor might discuss this in his presentation in a few minutes.

Earlier this month, the MDBA published the latest Water Take Report for the water year to the end of June 2018. Again, this is publicly available on the website.

We do it every year and many of the so-called expert commentators in the community forget about this.

That report found irrigators are using less water, not more.

We found the actual surface water take in 2017-18 to be down slightly compared to the previous year—to 10,621 gigalites, which included large volumes of water already in storage.

Since the start of the Basin plan, the overall water take is down from 14,011 GL to 10,621 GL ­--  a saving of more than 3,000 GL on average each year over six years.

The use of groundwater—that is water from underground aquifers—was up by 448 GL over the water year, which is consistent with the onset of the dry conditions.

You don't have to just take our word for it. Those figures were backed by the findings of the Productivity Commission's five-year assessment of the Basin Plan, published in late January.

The Productivity Commission said about 20 per cent of the water available for consumptive users a decade ago is now dedicated to the environment.

The figures are a good sign. They show the Basin Plan is working, that it is delivering water for the environment, that water users are planning ahead, they are using the markets, they are using carryover to help them through the dry times.

What those figures do not show is that irrigators are somehow rorting the system.

That's not to say there is no bad behaviour in the Basin. We've been concentrating efforts on measures to improve compliance over the past two years.

At the MDBA, we have successfully trialled and used satellites to track water flows in the Northern Basin and to watch for any unauthorised take.

We have set up an Office of Compliance, Basin governments have agreed to a new compliance compact of commitments to protect water for the environment, and Basin governments have agreed on standards for new and replacement water meters.

In New South Wales, the state government has set up the Natural Resources Access Regulator, or NRAR, which has around 150 staff and investigators who are enforcing compliance. In its first year, NRAR initiated NINE prosecutions and secured three guilty verdicts.

In the past week, a River Murray irrigator pleaded guilty in the NSW Land and Environment Court to eight charges initiated by NRAR.

All of these measures help build public confidence that the rules are being followed, and enforced, across all parts of the Basin.

ENVIRONMENTAL BENEFITS

Under the Basin Plan, there is already around 2,000 GL of water held for the environment that will be available each year on average. This is real water, and water being used to benefit the river system and its environment.

Over the past four years, water for the environment has been used in more than 750 planned watering events. And it is making a difference.

In recent months, water for the environment was released in the northern Basin to help support native fish along the drought-hit Barwon River. The water refreshed waterholes where fish had taken refuge, giving them a stronger chance of surviving until the rains return.

Further south, quick action by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, the NSW office of Environment and Heritage, and the MDBA prevented large-scale fish deaths in the Lower Murrumbidgee, in an area that was put on red alert for algal blooms due to the high temperatures and low flows.

There are countless other benefits of the additional water for the Environment;

  • A number of fish species such as black bream, lamprey and catfish are making a comeback after almost disappearing from our rivers;
  • the endangered Murray Hardyhead fish has returned to NSW waters for the first time in a decade, and it is thriving and multiplying;
  • We've seen the largest Murray Cod spawning event in 20 years;
  • Water quality is improving – in one year along more than 500,000 tonnes of salt was removed from the river system – the equivalent of 25,000 semi-trailer loads; and
  • Without water for the environment, the Coorong would have been disconnected from the River Murray for most of the past two years.

I've listed some of the benefits of the Basin Plan, but I'm certainly not trying to suggest everything is fine and sorted.

But in my view, the Basin Plan means we are in a better position to deal with the current drought than we were during the Millennium drought or any previous major drought in this nation's history.

We can't drought proof the Basin. That would be impossible.

But the evidence shows irrigators are planning ahead. They are using carryover provisions to store water, they are using the water market to buy, to sell, and to hedge against the dry times.

The Basin Plan will help them during the dry times.

CHALLENGES

As I said, we're not claiming victory. There is still plenty of work to be done.

The mass fish deaths in the Lower Darling over summer are a grim reminder that we have a long way to go to restore the Basin to health.

In early July, the MDBA published its six-monthly report card. It found we are making progress, but there are still plenty of challenges to deliver the Basin Plan in full by 2024.

Again, this Report Card is publicly available on our website.

The Report Card found good progress is being made in three areas - water recovery, managing compliance with the rules of water use, and the delivery of water for the environment.

But it also highlights key areas where more work is needed, and where cooperation with the cotton industry will help ensure success.

First, governments are well behind in the implementation of the Sustainable Diversion Limit adjustment measures – the so-called supply measures, efficiency measures and constraints projects.

Second, appropriate licensing and transparency for overland flows, or floodplain harvesting, will be essential to demonstrate and secure community confidence. Floodplain harvesting is a legitimate form of water use – but arrangements for its regulation and reporting need to be robust.

Thirdly, more active management of flows to protect environmental outcomes is needed, particularly in unregulated rivers. We need to do more, particularly to protect low and flushing flows. I believe the solutions rely on active cooperation between river operators, irrigators and managers of water for the environment.

The roll-out of the "toolkit measures" to facilitate fish passage and to protect riparian habitats in the northern Basin are essential – they are also an important opportunity for partnership between the cotton industry, governments and communities.

Another key challenge is that the finalisation of state-based water resource plans for each catchment has fallen behind.

And finally, the current drought is making conditions extremely difficult across the Basin. Water prices are high, allocations for general security are extremely low, and many farmers and irrigators are facing tough decisions about their immediate and long-term future.

Our latest Drought Update published last week gives an overview of current conditions and water storages across the Basin. Again, this too is publicly available on line and is updated every fortnight.

CONCLUSION

The Basin Plan is based on cooperation;

Cooperation between the Commonwealth, the ACT and four State governments;

Cooperation between communities, Aboriginal communities and local governments;

And cooperation between farmers, irrigators, conservationists and tourism operators.

Collectively, we are all making a difference.

There is so much more in common than what divides interest groups - you are all Australians who care about the Basin. I ask you keep this in mind and commit to implement all of the Basin Plan. Not just the easy bits.

The actions we are taking now will save the basin in the long term. The results will be enjoyed by those who live, work and play in the Basin in 20 to 30 years and well into the future.

But the time to take action is now.

We can't afford to kick the can down the road – to leave the hard work to future generations.

To do so will be to make the repair work that much harder.

We must not leave it to future generations to fix the problems we are facing today.

Instead, we should ensure they inherit a healthier and more sustainable Basin;

A place where they can enjoy the full cultural, economic, social and environmental legacy the Basin can deliver for all Australians.

ENDS

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