The purpose of this interim report is to detail the concerns that the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport has with the Murray-Darling Basin Authority's Proposed Basin Plan (the Basin Plan). The committee's concerns arise because the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) has repeatedly ignored the major flaws in the Basin Plan, identified by virtually all relevant stakeholders including farmers, rural communities, scientists, environmentalists, and even the Basin states which referred their powers to the Commonwealth in order to create the Basin Plan. The Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, the Hon Tony Burke MP, has stated his intention to present the Basin Plan to Parliament this year.
As a result, the committee feels it has little choice but to release this interim report now in a final effort to urge the Government to reconsider the substance of the Basin Plan. Because the Basin Plan is a legislative instrument, the Parliament has no ability to debate amendments to improve the Basin Plan. The Basin Plan will either be agreed to as presented or disallowed in its entirety.
The committee supports the need for a plan for managing the Murray-Darling Basin, however, it has concern with the lack of transparency and the process followed in developing this Basin Plan. The committee notes that flooding rains of the last two years have returned healthy water levels to the river. This event ended eight years of continuous dredging of the Murray mouth to keep it open, relieved the serious water pressures faced by irrigators, the broader agricultural sector and many rural and regional communities, and replenished the water reserves of many important environmental assets.
Furthermore, with the significant gaps in the scientific analysis and information underpinning the Basin Plan, Parliament will find it difficult to give the Basin Plan the comprehensive and informed consideration it deserves.
The Basin Plan would commence in 2019 and continue through until 2029, so it will inform water policy in the Basin for almost the next two decades. The MDBA needs to assure Australians that its modelling and research will allow Parliament to consider a Basin Plan that is based on the best available science, provides value for taxpayers' money, is fair on irrigators and rural communities, and ensures the long-term ecological sustainability of the Basin. The MDBA also needs to provide a Basin Plan that meets ecological targets and outcomes required by the Water Act 2007 (the Act).
Due to the specific focus on the Basin Plan, there are a number of other major issues that this interim report will not cover in detail, that the committee considers essential to its broader inquiry. Instead, these other issues will be given full consideration in the final report. These issues include:
- water trading and buyback arrangements, including the proposed Nimmie-Caira buyback;
- the definition and allocation of different types of water, such as high security, supplementary, and terminal;
- environmental works and measures; and
- possible solutions for the long-term environmental and consumptive water-use problems that are facing the Murray-Darling Basin.