Keelty report sparks widely mixed reaction

Basin wide reaction to Keelty report ranges from cricticism to support

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KEELTY REPORT:Murray-Darling Basin Interim Inspector General Mick Keelty was appointed after angry NSW and Victorian irrigators converged on Canberra, last year, in the Can-the-Plan rally.

KEELTY REPORT:Murray-Darling Basin Interim Inspector General Mick Keelty was appointed after angry NSW and Victorian irrigators converged on Canberra, last year, in the Can-the-Plan rally.

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Keelty report variously described as waste of taxpayer's money to providing clear information.

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The response to the latest report into the Murray-Darling Basin has ranged from claims it's provided clear information about a complex issue to it being described as a waste of taxpayers' money.

The Interim Inspector-General of Murray-Darling Basin Water Resources report into the Basin has also been seen as a fascinating contrast between state cultures - in particular, risk-averse South Australia and buccaneering New South Wales.

IIG Mick Keelty cited lack of rain, resulting in lower than average inflows into the Murray-Darling Basin, as his most telling finding.

Mr Keelty was appointed after angry NSW and Victorian irrigators converged on Canberra, last year, in the Can-the-Plan rally.

Read more:

Littleproud commits to a review of the Murray Darling Basin Agreement

Tocumwal Basin Plan rally organisers head to the capital

"The most telling finding is the dramatic reduction in inflows that have been experienced in the River Murray system over the last two decades or so," Mr Keelty said in his report.

"This remains the primary driver of reduced water availability, and there is little anyone can do to influence when and how much it rains."

He said since the establishment of the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement more than a century ago, water-sharing agreements between the states had worked effectively, with the flexibility to adapt to inevitable dry times.

"Between 1895 and 2020, half the driest 10 per cent of years in the historical record had occurred in the past 20 years.

"The pattern of such dry years occurring back-to-back is also not observable to the same extent at any other time prior to 2000," Mr Keelty said.

Among his recommendations, Mr Keelty said the Murray Darling Basin Authority should undertake further analysis of the causes of reduced inflows, from the northern Basin, and the extent to which that was affecting state water shares.

It should also provide more transparent reporting about water accounting, including state allocations and water that was allocated but not used.

Other recommendations included a call for the Basin Officials Committee (BOC), which advises the ministerial water council, to:

  • Establish "a single authoritative platform" to collate the information provided by various government bodies, and
  • Work with secondary schools and VET education providers to provide water literacy programs in regional areas.

Former Water Minister David Littleproud asked Mr Keelty to inquire into the impact of changing distributions of inflows into the southern Basin, on state shares under the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement.

He was also asked to report on consequential impacts on state water shares, resulting from the reserves, required under the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement.

Water Minister Keith Pitt has accepted the five recommendations in the report and directed both his department and MDBA to take action to implement them.

Differing approaches

Response to the report has highlighted the vastly different approaches to the Basin Plan by irrigators, and lNSW and Victorian lobby groups..

On The Conversation website Australian National University research fellow, Daniel Connell, said the report described a fascinating contrast between state cultures, in particular South Australia and NSW.

"The report suggests that in many cases irrigator expectations of what should be normal were formed during the wet period Australia experienced between the second world war and the 1990s," Professor Connell said.

"Added to this have been business decisions by many irrigators to sell their entitlements and rely on the water market, a business model based on what now seems like unrealistic inflow expectations."

He said successive New South Wales governments - a significant part of the state's irrigation sector in the southern part of the state and the National Party - gambled against the climate and were now paying a high price.

"In desperation, they're focusing on alternative sources," he said.

"This includes the water in Hume and Dartmouth held under the reserves policy of the two other states; environmental entitlements managed by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder and the very large volume of water lost to evaporation in the lower lakes in South Australia, and the possibillity of savings resulting from changes to the management of the system by the MDBA"

But the immediate past president of the Ricegrowers Association of Australia president Jeremy Morton, Moulamein, NSW, said the inquiry was a missed opportunity to take an in-depth look at the Murray-Darling Basin.

However, it only had limited terms of reference.

"The more I reflect on this report, the angrier I get," Mr Morton said on social media.

"It has failed to address what was required; it's like they didn't understand what they had to do."

Mr Morton said talking about water involved difficult conversations.

"We are talking about who is getting what and there are winners and losers," he said.

"If you have been a winner, the last thing you want to do is lose."

He said it wasn't surprising the federal government had commissioned the report.

"It's not that unusual, in this space, that we get reports that are either lightweight, and don't cut to the chase.

"Even if they do cut to the chase, they end up gathering dust, because on-one has the intestinal fortitude to do anything about them."

Criticism and support

Representatives of four NSW and Victorian lobby groups - Murrumbidgee Valley Food and Fibre Producers, Upper Goulburn Catchment Association Central Murray Floodplain Environmental Group Inc and Speak Up Campaign - were scathing in their criticism.

"The Keelty Review can best be described as a waste of taxpayers' money that must be embarrassing for our Federal Government," the four groups said in a joint release.

"The five recommendations provide very little in the way of solutions, and the review appears to be another delaying tactic by the Federal Government.

The groups said the fundamentals of flawed water policy needed to be fixed, but the "wasted review" wouldn't fix that.

"Perhaps the only shining light in the report is the recommendation that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority needs to review system inflows due to a drying climate.

"As a result, the environment is over-allocated and has no chance of evolving to thrive in a drying climate."

The groups said they had put their trust in Mr Keelty, but again, it was misguided.

"It appears the MDBA has had significant input into the review, yet the MDBA is a large part of the problem," they said.

The report failed to identify conveyance losses, a significant factor preventing an allocation to NSW General Security and ensuring an extra allocation to Victorian Goulburn Murray Irrigation District producers.

But the Victorian Farmers Federation Water Council Chairman Richard Anderson said the report provided clear information about a complex issue.

"We are pleased to have some clear facts that farmers can understand," Mr Anderson said.

"We need to make sure information is updated and continues to be made available to irrigators and farming communities,"

Mr Anderson said the report provided a clear explanation about how water was shared across the Murray system, including information about inflows, deliveries and losses, as well as calling for a single point of truth where farmers could access information.

Mr Anderson said the report detailed information on conveyance losses, concluding that in 2018-19 they accounted for 25 per cent of the water delivered.

That was the same as 2006-07 and 2009-10 during the millennium drought.

"This information should already have been readily available to the community if the MDBA was doing its job properly," Mr Anderson said.

Mr Anderson agreed the report highlighted the differences between the states' allocation policies.

"Victoria and South Australia limited the amount of entitlements issued, whereas NSW issued greater volumes of General Security with less reliability," Mr Anderson said.

Leeton, NSW farmer, Lizzie Stott agreed the report provided much-needed transparency.

Ms Stott is part of a family farming business in the Murrumbidgee, growing cereals and cotton.

"His findings aren't surprising given he was pretty transparent about what he was hearing during his consultation," Ms Stott said.

"Unfortunately, the report isn't the 'magic bullet' many irrigators were hoping for to give them access to more water.

Most importantly, it didn't provide more water, as promised by some irrigation leaders at the Can the Plan rally.

She said leaders of the rally had promised irrigators they would get water in March.

"When Keelty talks about 'truth' and "facts' in the water debate, this is a serious issue," Ms Stott said

"This is the behaviour that fuels the toxic environment that currently exists around water policy discussions, and it's not okay."

Logie Brae, NSW, sheep farmer and crop grower Gabrielle Coupland said she was concerned some groups had over-promised on what the report could actually deliver.

"I think Mr Keelty needs to take some responsibility for not managing the expectations of the report, along the way," Ms Coupland said.

She said calls for a Royal Commission into the Murray-Darling Basin were misguided.

"A Royal Commission isn't going to deliver water either; if there are no inflows, there is no water."

But she said there had been what she called perverse policy outcomes, which had affected the NSW Murray.

She agreed there needed to be improved transparency and better water literacy.

"Increasing understanding about policy would be beneficial and helpful," she said.

"Overpromising, and under-delivering, have been frequent - we have continuously been promised the world, and it's never really been delivered.

"You can understand why people are frustrated."

Ms Coupland said releasing environmental water to irrigators was also fraught with difficulty.

"The environment hasn't just been promised that water, the Australian taxpayer has purchased that water and the environmental water holder has a property right, to that water."

If that right was eroded or amended, it was not unreasonable to expect the position of other water holders would also be questioned.

MDBA response

MDBA chief executive Phillip Glyde welcomed the report.

"We cooperated fully with Mr Keelty's team and provided them with data and facts as they requested," Mr Glyde said.

"They challenged us rigorously, and subsequently found that as river managers we are doing a good job.

"We know some irrigators will feel disappointed that the report has not unearthed any new water for communities doing it tough because of the drought,.

"However, it does show that every drop is accounted for and is made available to the state governments to manage and allocate according to their rules."

He said the MDBA had been working hard to increase the transparency and accessibility of water management information.

'We know there is always more that can be done," he said.

" We will work with Basin governments as the Interim Inspector-General has recommended, so people can get the information they need and want. "

The MDBA had also commissioned the CSIRO to model possible climate scenarios that we could face by 2050 in the northern and southern Basin.

"This research will help us all to better understand what changes are required to ensure we all have a sustainable future," Mr Glyde said.

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