Looking at water sharing a "mighty task"

Looking at water sharing a "mighty task"

WATER CONCERNS: Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley addresses the Rural Press Club of Victoria.

WATER CONCERNS: Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley addresses the Rural Press Club of Victoria.


Minister hopeful the ACCC water inquiry will restore confidence.


Looking at the Murray-Darling Basin water-sharing agreements was possible, but would be a "mighty task", according to Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley.

Ahead of Ms Ley's address to the Rural Press Club of Victoria in Melbourne last week, a small group of protestors from the southern NSW Riverina lobby group Speak Up handed out information on their concerns.

Ms Ley said the states controlled most of the Murray River flows and had the first call on water for critical human and farming needs.

"One of the lessons of this drought may be to step back and look at our national water-sharing agreements more broadly, but that is a mighty task to undertake," she said.

She believed South Australia was aware of the challenges faced by the upstream states.

"I believe SA is genuinely looking at solutions that will provide the same environmental benefit, with less fresh water," she said.

"That, essentially, is what we, in the upstream states are calling for."

READ MORE: Moama Speak Up forum

She was asked whether she believed the SA lower lakes barrages kept them above their natural level.

"People often say the barrages are artificial, they are holding the lower lakes too high, they need to come out," she said.

"If they do, there are at least 26 locks, weirs and regulated structures in the Murray that, by argument, probably could come out as well.

"We are not here, as governments, to restore the Murray to its original condition."

Ms Ley said competing demands between states, agricultural sectors and regions was intensifying.

"Every drop of water in the Basin is owned by someone, and if someone else wants it, they have to take it from someone else," she said.

The Murray-Darling Basin Agreement underpinned the allocation of water, between the states.

"This agreement, more so than the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, is the one that will have the greatest impact on the long-term future of the river," Ms Ley said.

One part of the water flowing down the Murray was environmental flows.

"This is one of the smallest allocations in the river, but one of the most important discussion areas today," she said.

Ms Ley said she had made significant efforts to identify what water could be given to farmers.

"The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH) is an independent statutory office, working in conjunction with state environmental water holders," she said.

"I can't tell it what to do, but I can monitor its actions very closely."

She said there were significant challenges to the CEWH lending water to farmers.

"They are not holding enough water to achieve any discernible outcome for irrigators," she said.

"Of the 300 gigalitres currently in the NSW Murray carryover, just 36GL belongs to the CEWH.

"By law, the CEWH can only sell water that is excess to its needs, and the tap is currently turned off on any environmental water in the Murray."

Ms Ley said she was also concerned about what she called "distortion" in the market.

"This is an area that can, and perhaps should, be calibrated, at least to the extent of addressing the distortion that can come from those entering the market with little, or no, connection to the land," she said.

Ms Ley said she often used the example of retired farmers using water as a nest egg, as one reason why people didn't need to be farming to take part in the water market.

"What I have, as a strong sense, is the concern among many people in the southern Basin [as to] how someone can be in the water market when they don't have an allocation," she said.

She said she was against speculation through the use of water as a derivative to push up its price.

"That is totally removed from any farming activities," she said.

Farmers had expressed concerns about $0 trades, when water was moved between valleys, which then resulted in price rises.

Those who felt something had happened to push up the price were "quite rightly going to be concerned, annoyed and wanting to know what's going on," she said.

Ms Ley said it was an "excellent" decision to call on the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to investigate the water market.

"They've got teeth, they are out there now in the Basin, asking the questions," she said.

"We can certainly take their recommendations, that's what they will be, and through our Treasury portfolio and other levers, I think we can restore some confidence.

"If temporary water is so expensive, let's make sure it's expensive for the right reasons."

But Speak Up chair Shelley Scoullar said politicians needed to take action to help desperate farmers.

"We have to stop wasting water, we have to acknowledge the Basin Plan is failing and our water management is at crisis point," Ms Scoullar said.

"We have been calling on politicians for several years to put politics aside and fix the mess.

"We could foresee what is currently happening ... the destruction of our environment, at the same time as family farmers are being destroyed."

Speak Up encouraged all cross-bench Members of Parliament to step up and provide the leadership that was required.

"At this point, the Coalition has shown it does not have what it takes," Ms Scoullar said.

"The Coalition seems happy to sit back and watch water being wasted, the environment damaged and the nation's food security threatened."


From the front page

Sponsored by