Last week’s statement from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority that it “might be much more like angels” in the eyes of irrigators when the draft Basin Plan is released in the near future, raises serious concerns as to whether the Authority is staying true to its overriding responsibility - clearly stated only a few months ago by its Chairman Mike Taylor - to place the health of the river ahead of all other considerations.
Although the paper released recently by the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists was roundly criticised for its inequity, the proposal was based on the sound premise that, if outflow is consistently reduced by more than one third of natural levels, a working river will progressively degrade and lose its ability to provide services to those who depend upon it.
There have been no natural flows from the Murray mouth since 2002 and the longterm average outflow is now a mere 20% of that prior to establishment of irrigation in the Basin.
If the Authority proposes an overall reduction in extractions of any less than 40%, it will most probably fail in its duty to revive the nation’s largest river system.
The Australian public is increasingly aware of the serious, Basin-wide, ecological impacts of broad-acre, flood irrigation of water-hungry crops, notoriously cotton and rice, and the limited regional and national benefit arising from such operations in comparison to most other agricultural activities.
There can be little doubt that water-intensive agribusinesses, together with the increasing number of global investment companies active in Australia’s emerging but electorally unendorsed water market, are placing heavy pressure on those drafting the Basin Plan to renege on the commitment made by Mr Taylor.
For the sake of the future of the Murray-Darling Basin and its communities, the MDBA must not blink.