Friday, August 15, 2008

Murray Darling murky waters

The great water debate continues unabated. Can the lower Murray and the Coorong be saved? Is this a national emergency? Is disaster inevitable if something is not done now to release water from further upstream. The facts are murkier than the politics. Hopefully the new audit will help but I doubt it.

South Australian commentator Gary Sauer-Thompson was bleak in his assessment before Federal Cabinet met yesterday:

The calls for restoration of environmental flows to the River Murray from Buying up properties along the Barwon-Darling River and releasing water stored in the Medindie Lakes will go unheeded, despite the growing political pressure about the years of inaction by state governments captured by irrigator interests in the Basin.
and unconvinced afterwards:
So Rudd bowed to political pressure in South Australia and made some modest concessions. An audit only tells us how much water is there; it does not tell us what water is available to save the Corrong wetlands and lower lakes. Secondly, though buying farms and not just licences is a move in the right direction none will be bought in Victoria and nothing is being said or done about the illegal irrigation on the Paroo River in Queensland. gross mismanagement of water 14 August 2008
The Adelaide Advertiser has been running a full frontal assault on all relevant Labor governments through their Save the Murray campaign. There is some good news. We have spent several weeks in South Australia lately and it seems to be raining frequently. Even the Tiser admits that some water is making its way into the lakes and storage downstream:
Reservoirs are at 57 per cent capacity and still 86 gigalitres below full. The level of Lake Alexandrina has increased 8cm from water run-off from the Fleurieu Peninsula.

It is now at 0.34m below sea level, compared with 0.42m below sea level at the start of July.
Creeks flow, lakes rise but drought isn't over 12 August 2008
Like Senator Xenophon, The Australian newspaper seems more concerned with the politics:
THE Government will offer to buy out the water entitlements of entire irrigation communities as Kevin Rudd moved yesterday to appease growing outrage at the plight of the lower Murray River.

The Prime Minister also caved in to demands for an external audit of water remaining in the drought-ravaged Murray-Darling Basin that spans Queensland, NSW, Victoria and South Australia.

Federal cabinet, meeting in Adelaide, a centre of the unfolding crisis, signed off on $50million in additional spending to accelerate the buyback of water rights, which has so far had minimal impact.

But the Opposition dismissed the package as "paper money", while South Australia's balance-of-power senator Nick Xenophon said it did not go far enough.
Water buyouts to ease Murray River anger 15 August 2008
The plan to buy back not only irrigators' licences but also properties and even whole irrigation communities has also met with criticism:
Irrigators say the Federal Government has ignored the impact its plan to speed up buying back their water will have on rural communities.

They're accusing it of a knee-jerk reaction to pressure from environmental groups.
Irrigators criticise Rudd water buyback move ABC Rural 15 August 2008
Ultimately there are more votes in saving the lower Murray than in winning the support of the irrigators. Kevin Rudd and Penny Wong can respond to community pressures but they cannot please all the competing interests. There will be winners and losers in the fight for water. Let's hope the worst predictions about climate change are not realised. Our democratic processes are not ready for the potential apocalypse.

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