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Janet on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and river red gum forests

Speeches in Parliament
Janet Rice 10 May 2018

Senator RICE:  I remember when the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was finalised about a decade ago, and there was such hope. We'd had the millennium drought. It was clear that the river system was in such dire straits. It was absolutely on its knees. It was such a political, hard-fought, fraught issue. I remember the negotiations and finally the agreement coming down that there would be environmental flows on average of 3,200 gigalitres a year allocated to the river. I remember that that in itself was a compromise. The scientists, the people who knew the river so well, absolutely felt that more was required. That 3,200 gigalitres was a compromise and everybody thought, 'Maybe if we get the 3,200 gigalitres it'll just be enough to keep this river system, this life blood of half of Australia, healthy.' That was the context.

In the decade since, fortunately the drought broke. Good. But it seems that the pressure has gone off and there's a sense that maybe that 3,200 gigalitres wasn't really as essential as it was painted to be back when the plan was finalised. Then we have had the political context and layer over that Murray-Darling Basin Plan which has been added over the last decade, particularly what has come to light over the last year—the water theft, the fraud and the appalling rorting of the whole plan by corporate irrigators in the upstream reaches of the basin. That puts the whole Basin Plan into a different perspective. We've got that figure of 3,200 gigalitres, but it's clear that quite a lot players involved in this were never serious about 3,200 gigalitres. We had the 450 megalitres that was obviously seen to be an optional extra. That never had a strong commitment to it. There has been pressure for that not to be delivered. Then we had the sustainable diversion limits and now this sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism actually taking yet another huge chunk out of that 3,200 gigalitres which—remember—I said was acknowledged at the beginning of the plan as being the absolute minimum that was required for the river to stay healthy.

I want to move from that political, bureaucratic context in talking about megalitres to talk about what this means for the river. My colleague Senator Hanson-Young speaks so eloquently and so passionately about the impacts of this Basin Plan on the river in South Australia.

As a Victorian senator I have a particular passion for the Murray in its Victorian reaches, particularly the river system and the river red gum forests of Victoria. I took the opportunity recently to go and visit some of the remaining river red gum forests in Victoria near Swan Hill, the Nyah-Vinifera forests. This area of forests is pretty small. If you think about the massive extent of river red gum forests that were all along the river at the time of white settlement, we've got these remnants. The Nyah-Vinifera forest is a remnant; it's only 820 hectares. But it is a much loved and valuable remnant of the much larger river red gum forests that were once there. It is incredibly valued by the local community. Because it's a remnant, it is even more important for its ecological value and for what was once there.

This trip was organised for me by a couple of local activists. I want to pay tribute to them in this speech, Jacquie Kelly and Morgana Russell in particular. They wanted me to visit the forest with them so that we could see together what the state of that forest was. We met an orchardist, local farmer and irrigator, Peta Thornton, who is as passionate as Jacquie and Morgana are about the health of the river. She was outraged that her name as an irrigation farmer was being used to justify reducing the level of water that was going into the river. She knew that the health of her business and her community depended upon the health of the river. She knew that without enough water going down the river, her business and the community, as well as the life of the river, were going to suffer. 

I also had the great privilege of meeting some of the traditional owners from the Wadi Wadi and Wemba Wemba people, in particular Cain Chaplin, a traditional owner who spent an afternoon with us as we walked the forest. It was such a privilege to walk this area of forest with Cain and to be there to see his love for the forest and his connection to the forest, but also to feel his pain of how unhealthy and how stressed that forest is.

This river red gum forest needs to be inundated every few years. Because of the efforts of the local communities and massive campaigns, it's now being protected from logging. It's being protected as a regional park. When that occurred, there was great hope that this forest had a chance of being brought back to a healthy situation. But, sadly, even over the last decade, even though the drought has broken, even though we haven't had the dreadful conditions of the millennium drought, this area of forest is under stress. It is not getting the water it requires. It needs to be inundated every couple of years. It's not happening. Every large tree that we looked at, Cain, Jacquie and Morgana said to me, 'Have a look up there.' You could see the dead branches. You could see these trees were under stress. We could think about what the future was going to be like for these forests. You could see dead trees. You knew that more and more of these trees were going to die because they were not getting the inundation they required. This was exactly the sort of issue that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was meant to resolve to make sure that these areas of river red gum forest were healthy. It's not yet working. And what is the government planning on doing? Reducing the level of water that's going to be available to this forest.

The sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanisms that are being proposed, which we are debating tonight, are actually going to mean there is less water available for this area of forest than is currently the case. Even if the project worked, even if every one of them was effective at watering the forest, they are only going to cover approximately 60 per cent of the forest in the Nyah-Vinifera area, leaving 40 per cent aside. That means that 40 per cent of the forest is going to be dying a very sad, tragic death. That's presuming that these sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanisms actually work.

That is something that is absolutely very questionable, because nobody yet knows the details of what the sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanisms are in these forests. Basically, for the local community, the local traditional owners and the local environmentalists, the details of what the adjustment mechanisms are are not yet public. And, as Senator Patrick has just said, they haven't yet got business cases for them. They can't tell them what they are. What they are told is, 'You're going to have a series of levees, locks and weirs.' And that's going to mean that rather than having water flowing into these forests and then flowing out again, it's going to stop that water. The theory is that instead of 'wasting' this water—so-called wasting—and having it flowing through, that inundating this area of forest and having the water sit there for various periods of time will be the same as allowing the water to flow through. This is absolutely questionable—more than questionable. In fact, it is highly unlikely that this is going to be the equivalent of having a natural flood flowing through that forest.

What's more, whereas we now have an area of forest that is pretty much in its natural state—despite the stress that it's under—an area of forest that is beloved by people from all over Victoria, who come and camp there regularly to be there in that forest, we're going to have levee banks, locks and these massive great concrete structures to hold this water in place.

The likelihood of those adjustment mechanisms, those actual constructions, meeting the needs of the forest is so small. I can see that we are going to spend hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars on these projects and then, in 10 years time, actually find that they're not working—that we're getting blackwater events because we have this water sitting stagnant rather than flowing through and that, actually, they're not serving the purposes that they set out to do. But, it will be too late then, and too late for the health of the river. That is the issue; that is the focal point of what we are discussing tonight.

I heard Labor saying that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is back on track. That is a ridiculous assertion. How on earth can they say that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is back on track when there is still so much that's unknown? We're going to spend $1.3 billion on these untested adjustment mechanisms—

Senator Hanson-Young:  Cutting out 605 billion litres of water.

Senator RICE:  That's right! Cutting out 605 billion litres of water. Senator Gallacher talked about improved transparency, where we are being asked to sign off on $1.3 billion worth of projects without having business plans and without knowing that they're going to work. It is just something that is totally unacceptable and something that, for me, concerned about the river—that for us as Greens, concerned about the health of this river and the health of these communities—absolutely cannot acquiesce to.

The other aspect I think that we need to talk about, going back to my point about the 3,200 gigalitres being an absolute minimum: it is absolutely necessary that we get all of that. Every single gigalitre of that water is needed for the health of the river. That is what the Murray-Darling Basin Plan doesn't actually even consider—the fact that that allocation of water, when it was worked out a decade ago, didn't take into account the impact of climate change. If we look at what's going to happen to flows in the basin with a warming climate, we're going to need a lot more water allocated to the environment than what is being proposed if we're going to keep it healthy.

A month ago I was in Swan Hill. Under a scenario of three to four degrees of warming, the climate in Swan Hill is likely to become like the climate of Cobar. These are the sorts of impacts that we are talking about with climate change, and yet we are talking about taking water out of the river!

It is just completely unscientific. It is completely irrational. It will just mean that the river will be left a dying, sad vestige of its former health.

The river under the plan as proposed—under the sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism—is being sold out. The river needs more water, not less. For those of us in this parliament who are concerned about the health of the river, who are concerned about the livelihoods of the people who rely on the river, who are concerned about the livelihoods of the irrigators, who are concerned about the livelihoods of community and who are concerned about the areas like the Nyah-Vinifera forests, a cultural landscape of immense significance to the traditional owners, we cannot agree to these sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanisms to be passed.

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