"Think globally, act locally" has been a mantra of the environmental movement for more than three decades. Why then does there now seem to be support for "control nationally, trade entitlements wherever" (the market takes you)? Be it for waters such as those of the Murray-Darling, or the gases in the atmosphere, market solutions are to be favoured it seems.
Present Murray-Darling arrangements are not working, we have been repeatedly told without any explanation. Given a supposed stuff-up, radical change is suggested. Like some Western hero, the Commonwealth is now seen riding into town to impose good order. Interestingly, it will do this by buying off some states, setting up a bureaucracy, heading to the casino and paying off the water varmints.
Ever modest, or naive, it maintains it won't otherwise upset the good order of the states. Taking control of just the water, not the land, is its claim.
Unfortunately for our supposed hero, rivers are most directly affected by what happens on the lands through which they flow, and by what falls from the sky. Water courses are land drains, be the lands urban or rural, polluted or pristine. These aquatic environments accommodate interlinked flows and are impacted along their lengths by myriad activities and circumstances. Land and water naturally go together, despite the schemes of some federally.
Man cannot control rivers or groundwater in any simple sense, though we often model them in this way. The best you can do is influence flows and their constituents, or take advantage of them. Paddling the Condamine and other south Queensland rivers with friends gave its own insights into the nature and beauty of these rivers. Most apparent is how little water there usually is.
While motorists crossing bridges might gaze a wide expanse of water or map makers draw lovely deep blue lines on their maps, on the river there is frequently little enough for a canoe. It was no accident that paddle-steamers in early Australia were limited to only a few stretches of southern inland waters. Even there they operated for only a few years. Talk of water security and drought-proofing does not match the realities of Australia's inland waterways. We are in danger of fundamentally misconstruing the problem and the potential.
One positive outcome of recent years has been the development of catchment management groups. While these vary in effectiveness and levels of underresourcing, they do seek to relate activities on the land to the effects on rivers in coherent ways in their local areas. In the best cases, community, industry, state and federal representatives have worked together developing sensitive local solutions with local and downstream benefits. Potential to do much more exists, especially if more adequate global arrangements were present.
One negative has been the uncritical bundling of water as entitlements. These were then treated as tradeable commodities and sure claims on assets. Such bundlings can have their place but overly optimistic implementation has been accompanied by spurious certainties and financial misallocations, given market and seasonal conditions. Irrigators planned for supposedly lucrative markets with supposedly sure water. In hindsight, this was carried and financed to a foolish extent. Now we must tackle our past.
Four main jurisdictions have historically managed the inland rivers. Each jurisdiction has institutionalised arrangements in place that are sufficiently different when combined with distinctive past practices to make interstate comparisons difficult, and any "national organisation" problematic, expensive and potentially open to considerable litigation. What would be needed for each existing jurisdiction to rectify identified problems? This obvious "easy" question is apparently unaddressed.
Bureau of Statistics data reveals differences in outcomes. NSW and South Australia appear overcommitted, with some NSW rivers having "entitlements" twice the maximum available volumes. Victoria appears heavily committed while Queensland is uncertainly committed. The core problem is one of unsustainable commitments at present prices and conditions.
While problems do exist, much has been achieved. Inland towns and crops have been watered while much wildlife and waterway has been conserved. Drought is now bringing things to a head. Understandably, the squabbling can be intense. Should we act locally or globally to reconcile the various water users? How should each be represented? Recall constitutionally "the right of a state or of the residents therein to the reasonable use of the waters of rivers for conservation or irrigation".
Distinctive choices face our premiers and PM yet their objectives are unclear. Canberra is pushing central control via a global management regime and market. The states see a need to interconnect their inland waters in mutually more satisfactory ways while maintaining development and the potential for it. Some also see a need to finance buybacks of water "entitlements". This would seem to be most pressing for NSW with many 100 per cent committed rivers, net water trade imports and some lower returning activities. Little wonder that NSW appears keenest for change, and money.
Confusion about objectives and lack of mutual respect may see effective stalemate today in Canberra. It's time we moved past the Western hero model. It sits poorly with our rivers, as does the simplistic management model. It's also time we reviewed "think global".
Better thinking is needed about the particular district, jurisdictional and common problems of our rivers. Apt actions can then follow. Some can be advanced immediately and to good effect within existing arrangements. Others will take longer or need different arrangements. Proper investigations by all responsible stakeholders needs well-directed dialogue and suitably sensitive actions. Such things will take us and our rivers much further than hoping for heroes or just waiting for rain, or a new bureaucracy.