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While some loud voices upstream are expressing outrage, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority's conclusion that big reductions in irrigation water use are necessary to secure the health of the river system will come as no surprise to South Australians.
The Murray-Darling is a vital national life-support system for people and wildlife. It has been seriously damaged by the overuse of its water for decades.
With the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, we now have a chance to fix the problem. For a decade, scientists have been saying it's necessary to return 3000 billion to 4000 billion litres of water to the Murray-Darling.
That would mean reducing the amount of water the irrigation industry takes each year from about 82 to about 58 times Adelaide's annual water use.
The authority says returning 3000 billion litres will give us a low certainty of achieving a healthy river, while returning 7600 billion litres will give a high certainty.
The basin plan is backed by law. The Commonwealth Water Act passed through Parliament with the support of both major parties in 2007. It requires the authority to make a plan that includes returning water from over-allocated or overused rivers to environmentally sustainable levels of extraction.
Water Minister Tony Burke will approve a plan in late 2011.
The basin plan is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to establish strong, sound economic and environmental management of our rivers.
Returning water to the river system will enable the Murray Mouth to remain open in all but the 10 per cent of driest years. Those flows will keep the Coorong alive, help wildlife move between salty and fresh water and allow the river to regularly flush salt and nutrients from its system.
About 90 per cent of the Murray-Darling's floodplain wetlands have been destroyed. They require regular flows to help them clean and purify water and provide a refuge for waterbirds and wildlife.
It's been clear for a long time that the way Australia shares water between the environment and irrigation industries isn't working.
Business as usual means maintaining poor economic and environmental management, the continued deterioration of wetlands, wildlife, red gum forests, soil and water quality. Since 1992, Australian taxpayers have contributed about $25 billion to try to stop the ecological decline of the river and its catchments. Today, scientists rate 20 out of 23 basin river valleys as being in poor or very poor condition.
It's time Australia started seeing some environmental benefits from a generation of public investment. Unfortunately, the authority has only released data on the possible economic losses to irrigation industries from making the river healthy.
They've only counted one side of the balance sheet. The authority concludes that returning 3000 billion litres to the environment means a loss of gross regional product of 1.1 per cent. That assumes government and business sit on their hands and do nothing to create new jobs.
But won't the $5.8 billion of public subsidy for upgrading irrigation infrastructure provide benefit? And what about the $3.1 billion invested in water buybacks that puts cash in irrigators pockets and water in the river? Will the new $10 billion regional development fund provide no economic or social benefit to the 50 per cent of basin people who live in towns and cities?
A whole-of-government approach is needed to support the change Australia needs.
By Paul Sinclair, ACF's Healthy Ecosystems Program Manager