Stop sucking rivers dry

August 12, 2017

The recent Four Corners program about the Darling River aired some shocking images and allegations.

The recent Four Corners program about the Darling River aired some shocking images and allegations.

We saw how giant water pumps and enormous dams containing billions of litres of water owned by cotton growers are leaving downstream farmers and communities high and dry.

We also heard troubling accusations of blatant water theft, dodgy meter tampering and how the NSW Government is turning a blind eye.

But what’s most shocking of all is the fact that excessive water pumping by the cotton growers is totally legal and within the rules set by the NSW Government.

Despite all the noise and outrage, this core problem is still being overlooked.

In the past week, four separate inquiries have been announced in response to allegations raised by the Four Corners report, two by the NSW Government and two by the Federal Government.

However, these reviews are focusing on water theft while failing to ask the real question: whether the rules themselves are rigged to favour particular vested interests.

In 2012, the NSW Government made major changes to the water sharing rules in the Barwon-Darling.

They allowed irrigators upstream of Bourke to super-size their pumps and extract much bigger volumes of water more quickly.

They also allowed the irrigators to pump when river flows are low, which means they can suck up water that has been bought by the Commonwealth to protect our environment.

The results have not only cut water supplies for downstream users, including in Victoria and South Australia, they are also jeopardising the environmental benefits of the $13billion national Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

The impacts are being felt all the way along the Darling to Menindee Lakes and on down to the Murray.

The inquiries announced by the NSW Government focus on the allegations of theft and corruption, conveniently avoiding scrutiny of the impacts of NSW rule changes.

Meanwhile, the Federal Government’s investigation has a serious conflict of interest.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has asked the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to undertake a review, but this process is already compromised because the MDBA is the body responsible for accrediting water resource plans and is in negotiation with the NSW and Queensland governments and the Commonwealth over various rule changes.

Instead of four compromised inquiries, what we need is one proper inquiry to get the job done.

It should be a broad, independent judicial inquiry into water management across the system, commissioned by the Council of Australian Governments.

The federal ALP and politicians of all stripes in South Australia are supporting this call, and Environment Victoria strongly agrees.

This judicial inquiry must be able to call witnesses and provide protection to whistle-blowers.

The inquiry should consider a wide range of issues, in particular the impact of changes to the rules for water-sharing on downstream users and the environment, all the way through to Victoria and South Australia.

It should also consider the allegations of water theft and meter tampering, the lack of compliance activity by the NSW Government and irrigator influence over decision making by the NSW Government and the MDBA.

Only then will we know how cotton growers siphoning off water upstream, as revealed by Four Corners, is undermining the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Allegations of water theft get the blood boiling but there’s an even bigger question here: will we continue to allow vested interests to influence decision making and suck our rivers dry?

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