Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission slams authority for ‘gross maladministration’

The Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission has found Commonwealth officials committed gross maladministration, negligence and unlawful actions in drawing up the multi-billion-dollar deal to save Australia’s largest river system.

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Key points:

  • The royal commission was called after ABC revealed NSW irrigators were taking water earmarked for the environment
  • Royal Commissioner Bret Walker said the authority in charge of the basin plan was “unwilling or incapable of acting lawfully”
  • He accused the original architects of the plan of being driven by “politics rather than science”

Commissioner Bret Walker SC recommended a complete overhaul of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, including reallocating more water from irrigation to the environment.

The report found the original plan ignored potentially “catastrophic” risks of climate change.

The investigation into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, prompted by allegations of water theft by NSW cotton farmers which first aired on the ABC in 2017, recommended major reform including resetting water saving limits, repealing the outcome of the Northern Basin Review and new measurements for water on flood plains.

The plan, signed into law in 2012 by basin states and the federal government, aimed to remove 2,750 gigalitres (GL) of water through irrigated agriculture and return it to the river system to help the environment.

Commissioner Walker accused the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), the body responsible for implementing the reforms, of failing to do so.

“That state of affairs exists today, and is the principal reason why there are serious doubts whether the current senior management, and board, of the MDBA are capable of fulfilling their statutory obligations and functions.”

Commissioner Walker said the MDBA failed to act on “the best available science” when it was determining how much water could be returned to the environment in the first place.

When explaining the process for approving business cases for water infrastructure projects, designed to help return more water to the river, the Commissioner also accused the MDBA of being secretive.

“The reasons given for this secrecy have no substance,” he said.

“The business cases involve the functions of government, not private enterprise. There is no aspect of commercial-in-confidence — whatever that term is intended to mean — about them.

“Not only is this attitude towards disclosure condescending, it neatly encapsulates the habit of the MDBA, amongst other government entities, to keep matters that should properly be disclosed to the public, secret.”

Report finds politics, not science, was driving plan

Commissioner Walker accused the original architects of the multi-billion-dollar plan of being influenced by politics, with the report finding “politics rather than science” drove the setting of the “Sustainable Diversion Limit (SDL) and the recovery figure of 2,750 GL”.

“The [water] recovery amount had to start with a ‘two’,” he said.

“This was not a scientific determination, but one made by senior management and the board of the MDBA.

“Science, as that term should be understood, was not used. The MDBA has failed to disclose key matters, such as its modelling.

“Science is open, available, and can be critiqued and checked. It can be validated or invalidated.”

The royal commission, which cost more than $5 million, called for new water limits to be set on “the basis of a proper construction of the Water Act, rather than using a triple bottom line approach” and include flood plains.

The “triple bottom line” refers to the balance of social, economic and environmental impacts and was a key consideration used in the Northern Basin Review and SDL, but one which the royal commission highly criticised.

SA Premier says Murray River is the ‘beating heart’ of the state

The South Australian Government released the report today, after it was handed to Governor Hieu Van Le on Monday.

South Australian Premier Steven Marshall described the report as “complex” and said that he would ask Prime Minister Scott Morrison to convene a meeting with the ACT’s Chief Minister and premiers of the basin states.

He said the Murray River was the “beating heart of South Australia”.

He said 3,200 GL of water must be delivered to the state and that the State Government would consider the royal commission’s report and respond in coming months.

“I am not going to respond to the individual recommendations and findings today because I think it is fair enough that we provide a copy of this to every other jurisdiction, we seek input from other cabinet ministers and we will respond accordingly,” Mr Marshall said.

He said the report did not focus on the “very serious allegations of water theft” and that the change of the royal commission’s focus happened before the Liberal Party was elected in March 2018.

Source: ABC News 2019-02

Immediate access to water for South Australian irrigators

Irrigators in South Australia will soon have faster access to the water they purchase with the announcement of a $14.67 million investment in the state’s water trading system.

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Federal Minister for Water Resources, David Littleproud, said the move would mean water is delivered in minutes or hours, not days.

“This will make sure crops don’t wilt while farmers wait on their water,” Mr Littleproud said.

“When farmers do well, the whole community does well and this investment will also benefit regional SA businesses.

“The new system will give farmers the flexibility to buy and sell water at short notice.

“It takes the hassle of processing times and delays out of the system.

“It lets water users see real-time data so they can make well-timed business decisions.

“This is just one way the Coalition Government is working with farmers to get the best out of their water.”

South Australian Minister for Water and Environment, David Speirs, said the water trading system would bring South Australia in line with the rest of the Basin states.

“This is an exciting and significant step that will make South Australia’s current water regulatory services and systems – an area which SA already performs exceedingly well – even better,” said Mr Speirs.

“The water trading system will improve intra and interstate water trading, including better alignment with the New South Wales and Victorian water management systems, as well as support the delivery of the Basin Plan.

“The delivery of these services will reduce red tape and costs to support more efficient business decisions in South Australia.”

The new system is expected to be fully implemented by 30 June 2021.

Source: Utility Magazine 2019-02

FarmHub: One stop shop for drought assistance launched

FARMHUB, a single, straightforward place for farmers to find out what drought assistance is available to them has been launched.

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The new online resource was launched today bringing together information on drought support available for individual farmers.

Agriculture and Water Resources Minister David Littleproud said FarmHub brings together the services of the Commonwealth, states, councils and charities.

“This will tell farmers what assistance is available for them without any mucking around,” Mr Littleproud said.

“It will show what fodder, water, transport and living expense assistance is available at an individual farm, as well as mental and physical health services.”

The resource has been verified by the National Farmers Federation.

Mr Littleproud also launched a National Drought Map to help coordinate the drought response and so governments, business and communities can make informed decisions.

“The National Drought Map is a clear and precise picture of conditions and the drought response across Australia,” Mr Littleproud said.

“This will help us to be flexible and responsive to the drought when conditions change.

“It has information such as rainfall, soil moisture, available government assistance, numbers of farm businesses, agricultural regions and employment by industries.”

View the National Drought Map. 

Source: Farm Weekly 2019-02

Pressure floods onto Murray Darling Basin Authority

A significant shake up of the Murray Darling Basin Authority has never been more likely, as unprecedented scrutiny zeroes in on the federal agency that the Productivity Commission says is dysfunctional.

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One of the most likely outcomes of the public pressure, spurred by fish kills at Menindee, is for the MDBA to be split in two in an attempt to give pressured politicians some breathing room.

Three scientific inquiries are investigating the fish deaths, the PC has released its comprehensive review of the MDBA and the South Australian government is expected to release the findings from its Basin Plan Royal Commission shortly.

It remains to be seen what recommendations come from the Royal Commission and the scientific inquiries, variously requested by the federal government, Opposition, and NSW Labor.

But the intense public scrutiny on state and federal water ministers puts in the spotlight the MDBA, an agency established in 2012 to oversee the Basin Plan to restore environmental flows to the river system.

The PC’s final report, released last week, echoed its preliminary report in August which found many areas of the Basin Plan are in good shape.

But said the MDBA was created with conflicting roles and should be split into two independent bodies – a Corporation and a Regulator.

“These conflicts cannot be successfully managed through internal controls. In its current form, the MDBA cannot be a trusted adviser to Basin Governments and a credible regulator,” the report said.

Basically, the MDBA marks its own homework.

The Corporation would advise the states in design of crucial water recovery infrastructure, river operations and policy.

The Regulator would get out on the ground and check the projects and policies are working on the ground.

A reform such as this would be a move to address concerns of Menindee residents, environmentalists and many in the broader public who question why the MDBA oversaw large releases of water in the lead-up to the fish kill.

The states have proposed 37 water saving projects across the Basin and are required to finalise 36 Water Resource Plans, due by July next year, that divvy up water take between competing uses valley-by-valley across the Basin.

The PC said the plans are so far behind schedule the deadline must be delayed.

The projects that states are working on are designed to move water more efficiently and in turn reduce the volume recovered from irrigators by a total of 605 gigalitres.

The projects will be assessed in 2024 under the Basin Plan rules. If they’re found inadequate the Commonwealth has to re-enter the market get more water.

That will likely mean more water buybacks to the tune of $564 million and disruption for farmers, less irrigation for Basin towns and more cost to taxpayers.

National Irrigators chief executive Steve Whan backed the PC’s call to split up the MDBA and echoed its concerns over state projects, pointing out the risk of further water recovery to irrigators if the projects fail.

“These projects must achieve the environmental benefits intended, if not we risk more water being taken out of productive use,” Mr Whan said.

“We need to see greater community consultation and transparency along with maximum flexibility to achieve the projected environmental outcomes.”

SA government is expected to release the Royal Commission report shortly and the fish kill inquiries will start reporting from February 10.

The NFF has welcomed the prompt release of the Productivity Commission’s five-year assessment of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. This report contains a number of robust recommendations that will undoubtedly improve the implementation of the plan.

“It is significant to note that halfway through the implementation of the plan the environment has already more than 2000 gigalitres of water available to it,” Mr Gordon said.

“Recommendations from the Productivity Commission to strengthen the value of the environmental planning will further enhance environmental outcomes.”

The National Farmers Federation Water Taskforce Chairman Les Gordon said the PC report contains a number of robust recommendations that would improve the implementation of the plan.

“It is significant to note that halfway through the implementation of the plan the environment has already more than 2000GL of water available to it,” Mr Gordon said.

Mr Gordon said he expected the Royal Commission to be “adventure into competing legal views” on the Basin Plan.

“We urge decision makers to not be distracted by those issues and instead focus on the issues of today and tomorrow, and that is delivering on the Plan that is bipartisan and has the support of the six governments who have a direct interest,” concluded Mr Gordon.

Source: Farm Weekly 2019-02

Graziers rejoice as deluge soaks drought-ravaged western Queensland

Rain is finally falling in western Queensland with drought-stricken graziers grateful for the reprieve from the dry conditions as heavy but patchy rain falls across the west.

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Fairview Station at Kynuna, north-west of Longreach received 205 millimetres with more rain expected in the coming days.

The Bureau of Meteorology is forecasting a very high chance of rain in Longreach on Friday and a medium chance (40 per cent) elsewhere in the central west.

Rain was likewise expected on Friday across the state’s North West region and northern parts of the Channel Country.

Rain could even keep falling in Longreach until Saturday.

Caitlin Tait, from Fairview Station said the wet weather was filling the dams on the property.

“We have had a total of 205mm, leaving mass amounts of water laying, filling dams, running creeks, increasing our much-needed water supply,” Ms Tait said.

“We should see a dramatic comeback in the country after this rain, with the grass getting such a good soaking

Ms Tait said her young son was enjoying seeing his first wet season, which was a treat for all.

“We’re hoping everyone gets some much-deserved rain after a few very long, very hard years,” she said.

Mckinlay Shire Mayor Belinda Murphy said she was happy to report she had pulled her raincoat out for the first time this year.

“It’s so exciting seeing the rain we’ve got,” Cr Murphy said. “It’s so pleasing to see we’ve had some widespread rain.

“Kynuna has had over 110mm … to the north of the shire, there’s been falls of 150 to 160mm.”

She said for once it seemed like everyone was sitting under a cloud.

“I’m pretty confident that everyone is getting something out of this and hopefully it’s going to last a few more days,” she said.

“It’s very exciting for our communities to see this low come in and basically a monsoonal event start to happen.”

While the west was revelling in the falls, the brunt of the weather had been seen on the north Queensland coast near Townsville.

Oak Valley resident Ronnie Thomson said they had seen a phenomenal 769mm of rain fall since Sunday night to Thursday morning.

She said her daughter, Evelyn, had been having “an absolute ball stomping through all the puddles”.

“I’m from Richmond originally off a cattle property and we always needed rain like this,” Ms Thomson said.

“It really is all going to waste here now, with the opening of the spillway from the Ross [River] Dam yesterday.”

Rain is expected to continue to fall in the region across the weekend.

Source: ABC Rural 2019-02

Productivity Commission Review a Basis for Action

The National Irrigators Council has welcomed the release of the final Productivity Commission Report into the first five years of implementation of the Basin Plan, saying it should be the basis for action.

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NIC CEO Steve Whan said “this is a tough and comprehensive review and it starkly highlights some of the very difficult challenges we face, just over half way through the Basin Plan’s implementation.

“But it should also be very clearly noted that this report confirms that very good progress has been made so far.  Saying “significant progress has been made.

About 20 per cent of the water that was available for consumptive users a decade ago is now dedicated to the environment. About $6.7 billion has been spent to recover about 2000 gigalitres (GL). Water recovery is within five per cent of the July 2019 target.

The arrangements for managing environmental water are working well, with evidence of improved ecological outcomes at the local and system scale.”

Steve Whan said “despite the positive progress there are huge challenges and NIC would agree with most of the issues the Commission has flagged as needing attention.

“We have frequently expressed concern on the ability to meet certain tasks within the time frames remaining.  The report reflects the same concern in its recommendations on the Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Measures projects, the Water Resources plans and efficiency projects.

“We welcome recommendations on the Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Measures projects.  These projects must achieve the environmental benefits intended, if not we risk more water being taken out of productive use.  We need to see greater community consultation and transparency along with maximum flexibility to achieve the projected environmental outcomes.

“NIC highlights the comment in recommendation 4.1 about the need to clarify risk sharing.  At this stage risk and responsibility are dangerously separated leaving irrigation communities vulnerable.

“We also support recommendations relating to the 450GL of so called ‘up-water’ which is to be obtained via efficiency projects that come with either positive or at least no negative socio economic impacts.

“We note and welcome the Commission’s strong conclusion that negative impacts on communities of water recovery are proven.

“The report has proposed major changes to the governance of the MDBA. This is not suggesting the MDBA has failed, but rather it raises a relevant issue about whether regulation and reporting should be separated from policy and implementation in the longer term.

“NIC supports recommendations relating to the salt export targets and metering standards.

“NIC will provide a more detailed response to Government on the recommendations but broadly supports the report and its implementation. We look forward to working constructively with Government and any other bodies that are interested in using this report as a basis for successfully implementing the Basin Plan.”

Source: Irrigation Australia 2019-02

Sources include: ABC Rural, The Land, The Weekly Times, Stock and Land, Stock Journal, Bloomberg, Farm Online, Queensland Country Life

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