As the Murray Basin gets another “summit” for it's troubles it is timely to take a good hard look at the facts behind the last river to get the “can do” swagger from our politicians and environmental saviours. In October 2000 the Feds, NSW and Victorian governments gave us another “milestone” in the great pantheon of environmental achievements. They agreed to return 21 per cent of the Snowy River’s water that has hitherto been captured in the dam system and sent down to the Murray irrigators.
The hype merchants and word molesters were out in force. They had “saved an Aussie icon” and “restored the mighty river to its former glory”. There was no room at all for the fact that these custodians of the public good had just seriously impaired the contributive value and efficiency of a public asset, the dam system and related power generating capacity.
But that is only small beer compared to the character, scale and extent of the gross misrepresentation of facts that had been introduced into the policy process, without any apparent challenge by the professional officers involved, leading up to this decision.
A good grasp of the kind of arguments put by the self-appointed saviours of the Snowy River, prepared by East Gippsland Independent State MLA, Craig Ingram, can be seen here. If this MP has made similar representations to the Victorian Parliament then there are grounds to investigate whether he has engaged in grossly misleading and deceptive conduct.
He informed us that:
The value of the Snowy River to the Australian people is beyond calculation. Right now, this national icon lies at death's door. The once mighty Snowy River has been reduced to a series of small, stagnant pools, choked with weeds and sand. Seawater is intruding upstream and native fish are fast disappearing.
Note the clear implication that river flow is negligible and that this condition is present over the entire length of the river system. This perception was reinforced under the heading “a matter of equity” with the claim that “Australians are asking for 28 per cent of the original flow to be returned to the Snowy River”. And who, one may ask, could possibly argue against an apparent restoration of a river from 0 per cent to 28 per cent of its former flow?
But let’s put this into perspective. This 28 per cent amounts to about 330,000 megalitres or 1.3 times the total volume used each year by the 1.5 million residents of greater Brisbane. It was followed by the claim that, “the water needed for the Snowy can come from efficiency savings in irrigation”.
They quoted Professor John Lovering, former Chairman of the Murray Darling Basin Commission, as saying, “just a 10 per cent improvement in irrigation and farm management practices could deliver one million megalitres of extra water to irrigators”. And then implied that a simple, unstated, back-door, tax-in-kind, of 33 per cent of the farmer's gross, hard won, efficiency gains, on top of all their existing tax obligations, was all that was needed to fix this “matter of equity”.
It was such a simple, seductive concept that it was easily taken up by otherwise intelligent departmental officers, who lacked either the time or inclination to think the matter through. The Alliance lists as references:
- 1994 scoping report commissioned by NSW and Victorian Governments. Recognises 28 per cent of the Snowy's original flow is needed to reinstate the ecological function of the river;
- 1996 expert panel of scientists conclude that insufficient water is released from Jindabyne Dam to maintain a healthy ecosystem. They recommended 28 per cent;
- 1998 Scientific Reference Panel of the Snowy Water Inquiry conducted by NSW and Victorian Governments supports a minimum of 28 per cent.
The ACT Environment Commission also gets into the act with the narrow perspective of the Snowy River Shire when it claims, “The scheme diverted close to 99 per cent, or 520 gigalitres each year, of the Snowy River flow into the Murrumbidgee and Murray River system. This left the Snowy River with only 1 per cent, or nine gigalitres, of its average annual flow. A decision in 2002 saw this environmental flow increased to 38 gigalitres each year, or 6 per cent of the total flow.”
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