Back to the Murray-Darling drawing board

The regions will never consider the current water plan their own, writes Lane Sainty.

In December last year, scores of ‘Closing Down’ signs accompanied the Christmas decorations in the shop windows of Griffith, NSW. It felt eerie, as if the whole country town was giving up, finally acquiescing to the undeniable pessimism lingering in the air since the years of the drought.

But there was a catch: none of the stores were actually closing. The signs were part of a protest intended to show the members of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) exactly what the town would look like should the proposed changes to water allocations currently under debate go ahead.

For those who haven’t been paying attention: over past decades, the water in the Murray-Darling Basin – the catchment area for the Murray-Darling river systems, encompassing parts of NSW, Victoria, South Australia, and Queensland – has been systematically over-allocated to irrigators. This, coupled with last decade’s drought, means that dire environmental consequences now loom in South Australia.

Last week saw the release of the third draft of the proposed plan to deal with this issue, approximately 18 months after angry Griffith farmers burned copies of the first draft in a heated ‘community consultation’. Since those first meetings, which were little more than supervised screaming matches, the amount of water to be slashed from the irrigators’ share has been bumped down.

The plan released last week put forward 2750 gigalitres per year as the MDBA’s figure for how much water will be returned to the river. The figure was pounced on by each side of the debate, some shouting for a higher figure and others for a lower. And so on it goes.

For some, it is simple: most scientists agree that water needs to be returned to the Basin, so let’s return it. But, the other side goes, doing so will arguably kill off towns like Griffith, whose industry and economy relies on irrigation. Poor media coverage and misinformation have contributed to the heavy polarising of this issue, pushing each side into a fierce zero-sum game.

Throughout the entire debacle, Water Minister Tony Burke has held up a remarkable, I would say unjustified, optimism. On some level, he must know that this plan will never satisfy all sides of the debate. What he could do, however, is try harder to make the people of the Basin feel more involved in the process.

A good start would be acknowledging a simple fact: there is nothing country people hate more than city people telling them what’s best. Yes, irrigators are angry, and at times throughout the process, they have resorted to alarmist tactics which have exhibited them in the worst possible light. But Basin communities were not involved enough in the early workings of the Basin Plan and will never consider the current plan their own. Starting from scratch would take so much time and money that it almost shouldn’t be on the table. But it may be one way of developing a plan that will create compromise on some, if not all, of the many relevant issues.

Signs still line the streets of Griffith, railing against the ‘enviro-mental-ists’ who are apparently hell-bent on doing damage to their precious town. And figures still show that the proposed 2750 GL is not enough water to adequately nurse the Basin back to health. Compromise between irrigators and environmentalists still seems light years away.

Clearly, the plan as it stands is not big enough for the both of ‘em. To achieve at least some degree of mutual satisfaction, that will have to change.

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