An internal audit of the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder has vindicated claims about the poor administration of the Murray Darling Basin Plan, according to Victorian and NSW critics.
They say the Ernst & Young audit report into the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, released just before Christmas, raised the prospect states could rort the system to achieve preferential water flows.
‘‘There is a significant risk that the existing controls are not sufficient to ensure the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder’s statutory obligations are met,’’ the EY report found.
‘‘This ... arises because the delivery of Commonwealth environmental water relies on relationships developed at the officer level rather than agreed processes.’’
EY found the quality of reporting from State jurisdictions on the use of the Commonwealth environmental water varied.
In some cases, it was poor, or absent.
The audit also found any reporting, provided to the Commonwealth was discretionary, as agreed protocols had not been agreed and adhered to.
More generally information provided to the CEWH to inform operational decisions was understood to be highly variable in its quality.
Goulburn River beef producer Jan Beer, Yea, a long-time critic of the implementation of Murray Darling Basin Plan, said the report confirmed the taxpayer was providing $13 billion for something that was exceptionally poorly administered.
The plan could never achieve South Australia’s proposed enhanced environmental objectives for the Lower Lakes, Coorong and Murray River mouth.
Ms Beer said Commonwealth environmental water had been used to raise the water level in the South Australian Lower Lakes, for recreational boating purposes.
“From this document, it has been made very obvious that they (the CEWH) can have no idea what their so-called environmental watering is achieving or more importantly what damage they are causing,” Ms Beer said.
“We expect and deserve better governance as rural communities and businesses in the southern connected basin have suffered massive impacts with environmental water buybacks and water trade out of their districts, all a result of government and Basin policies.”
From this document, it has been made very obvious that they (the CEWH) can have no idea what their so-called environmental watering is achieving or more importantly what damage they are causing.
She said despite a $3.2 billion water portfolio, there was a complete lack of transparency by the CEWH, state governments and water bureaucracy with regards the impacts of the use of environmental water.
“For years we have been asking to see documentation of the degradation being caused by environmental water to no avail," she said.
"That includes the sedimentation build up throughout the Basin river systems, the collapse of the Barmah Choke and Goulburn River banks due to increased environmental flows and attempting to push greater and greater volumes of water down the system to the large Sunraysia plantations,” she said.
“Now we find from the EY audit the reporting on the use of environmental water has been unreliable, discretionary, poor and in some cases, as with South Australia, absent.
Wakool Rivers Association Chair John Lolicato said the plan was an “abject failure.
“Yet those being paid a lot of money for its implementation refuse to acknowledge this very stark fact,” Mr Lolicato said. “Everyone else can see it; why can’t they?”
He said the 2007 Water Act put water politics in front of proper river management.
“Decisions are now being guided by the unsustainable and unworkable Basin Plan that completely lacks any logic or common sense in decision making,” Mr Lolicato said.
Communities and industries were being destroyed.
“This is all occurring while the Edward River is running flat out through the Gulpa forest and the Murray River through the Barmah Choke, undermining the banks and causing damage from consistent high flows
“That is during a drought year when NSW Murray irrigators have a zero allocation. What is going to happen in an average year?
“We must pause, review or revise the Basin Plan with a moratorium of five years to give fatigued communities a chance to catch their breath, and give environmental water holders the opportunity to prove that the billions of litres of water they now own, courtesy of the taxpayer, can be used wisely.”
Inconsistencies and inaccuracies
Speak Up, Echuca’s Doug Fehring said the report, and one compiled by the Australia Institute showed up the Basin Plan’s inconsistencies and inadequacies.
He said he was concerned it was too great a political risk, for governments to admit they had a crisis on their hands.
“There have been any amount of submissions put forward, to solve the problem of the Lower Lakes, but we are filling Lake Alexandria to appease boating industries.
Mr Fehring said it has also been revealed in 2015-16 the South Australian Government deferred its entitlements and replaced them with environmental water.
But it failed to deliver that water to the Coorong.
It had also refused to use its desalination plant to provide Adelaide with water, instead of using Murray River flows.
“It’s not being used to help the environment, but at the same time it has a significant impact on the amount of water available for food production, especially in areas like the NSW Murray and northern Victoria,’’ Mr Fehring said.
“I am not surprised by the findings of this report, more concerned that it happened in the first place.”
He said he supported a call, by the Greens, for a Royal Commission, “to allow all this to come out and be recognised for what it is.
“But the more immediate issue we have is a Basin Plan which is ignoring local knowledge and expertise,” Mr Fehring said.
“They don’t talk to the locals, who know the system backwards.”
He said the recent fish deaths in the Menindee Lakes were “glaring evidence of poor management.”
“There have been any amount of reports, put in by knowledgeable people, which have been ignored.”
A Murray-Darling Basin Authority spokesperson SA was entitled to defer the delivery of some of its water entitlements, for use in future years.
‘‘The MDBA reviewed SA’s deferral decisions in 2015-16 and determined that the activities were entirely legal and consistent with the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement,” the spokeswoman said.
A CEWH spokeswoman said the internal audit was conducted in 2017, as part of a self-initiated process to review organisational risks and to support continuous improvement in managing environmental water.
“This is simply good management practice,” the spokeswoman said.
The audit report highlighted a number of issues for consideration, concerning improving governance, reporting, accounting and transparency associated with the delivery of Commonwealth environmental water.
It didn’t identify any cases of fraud or misuse environmental water.
The spokeswoman said the audit occurred at the same time as other investigations into the water sector. Since then, there had been significant reforms to governance and compliance in water management, across the Basin.
The audit had informed the development of a Business Improvement Plan, to further strengthen arrangements between the Commonwealth Environment Water Office and state delivery partners.
“Since the audit, the CEWO has worked with State agencies to review and strengthen arrangements, including water accounting, leading to improvements in practice,” the spokeswoman said.
Water accounting and reporting arrangements had since been agreed with the South Australian water agency, and were currently in practice.
“A scheduled review of our partnership agreements with state delivery partners is about to commence.
The review would help ensure suitable controls were in place to further reduce possible risks and vulnerabilities.
The CEWO was also currently finalising arrangements for stage two of its Long Term Intervention Monitoring program, to provide detailed reporting of the outcomes achieved by the use of the Commonwealth held water.
“The Office is also working with State agencies in the on-going refinement to water accounting and reporting arrangements,” the spokeswoman said.
“These arrangements will be documented in the state’s water resource plans and revised partnership agreements.’