Thinking green, by Caitlin

Thoughts and ideas on environmental topics from Caitlin Howlett, editor of Green Lifestyle.

Our thirsty basin

ACF Murray red gum

Credit: Amy Hankinson, Courtesy Australian Conservation Foundation

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Last time the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) released information on it’s Guide to the proposed basin plan in October 2010, there was rancorous outrage.

Scenes of people burning copies of the plan outside public meetings erupted onto our television screens, and the MDBA was criticised for not consulting the farmers – specifically the irrigators.

This time, farmers and irrigators have been consulted, and now the new draft basin plan’s water use reductions have been slashed by close to half. There’s a generous 20-week consultation period, yet some groups say they will once again set the plan on fire outside many of the scheduled public meetings.

The National Farmer’s Federation remain adamant that the proposal remains biased, without the promised balance between social, economic and environmental impacts. They say that their concerns about have not been taken into account, and that the future of communities, family farms and local businesses across the Basin are on the line.

On the other side, green groups say that the MDBA doesn’t suggest enough change. The Australian Conservation Foundation says it doesn’t secure the future health of the basin’s rivers, which therefore threatens not only the rivers, but the communities that rely on them – including the irrigators themselves. They take a long-term approach, because at the end of the day there are no jobs on a dead river.

It might look and feel like déjà vu, but the reality is that the plan is very different from last year’s. The new draft has been a serious disappointment for environmentalists, who were hoping for a cut of 7,000 gigalitres, and got just 2,750 gigalites, with action taken over a seven-year period. This means surface water use in the basin will be 10,873 gigalitres per year on a long-term average – that’s more than 20 times the volume of water in Sydney Harbour.

Another harsh reality, among other environmental concerns, is the two million tonnes of salt that needs to be taken out to sea at the mouth of the Murray in South Australia if the important wetland ecosystems in the Coorong are to have a chance of revival.

It’s important to remember that this is only the draft plan, and with a 20 week consultation period we can expect some intense lobbying from both farmers and environmentalists is expected during that time.

Given the intensity of the disparate views, I can’t help but be sceptical that it’s doomed from the outset – especially when the Federal Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities Tony Burke has even admitted there will never be consensus on the plan.

Water, biodiversity, and ultimately our food security will suffer if we're not proactive about changing the status quo, and soon. We seem to keep forgetting that we’re living on a finite planet, with finite resources. While the plan isn't going to solve all our environmental problems, surely something compromised is better than nothing confronted? With all this bickering we run the risk of preventing any kind of consensus, agreement or much-needed action.

View the full plan at www.mdba.gov.au, and be sure to have your say for Australia’s long-term food security.