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Murray Darling Basin Plan - an act of sabotage

By Sussan Ley - posted Friday, 15 October 2010

I am back from up the country, up the country where I went
Seeking for the Southern poets' land whereon to pitch my tent;
I have shattered many idols out along the dusty track,
Burnt a lot of fancy verses - and I'm glad that I am back.
I believe the Southern poets' dream will not be realised
Till the plains are irrigated and the land is humanised.
Henry Lawson, Up the Country, 1892

The early explorers and poets saw inland Australia very differently from the way we do today. Lawson expressed shock at its harshness and desolation, its “burning wastes and barren soils”, its “wild, rain swept wildernesses”, even the “gaunt and haggard women who live alone and work like men”.

Anyone who has lived and worked in drought stricken western New South Wales over the last few years will immediately identify with the sentiments expressed by our pioneers.


It gets tough, bloody tough.

No wonder the early settlers had a dream of irrigating the inland and turning a landscape with 13 inches of rainfall, growing rough scrub and running a handful of sheep, into a food bowl that supported communities and helped a young country become self reliant.

The dream became a reality with the Snowy Mountains Scheme, built between 1949 and 1974, consisting of 16 major dams; seven power stations; a pumping station; and 225 kilometres of tunnels, pipelines and aqueducts. It diverts water from the mountains through two tunnel systems, generating hydro electricity and regulating river flows in the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers.

Today, under the National Water Initiative, the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) is tasked with developing a Basin Plan containing Sustainable Diversion Limits (SDLs) for all of the rivers in the Murray Darling Basin. The Guide to the Draft Plan, released on October 8th, proposed SDLs which if implemented would see up to 4,000GL of water removed from productive use, or cuts of 27 per cent to 37 per cent of water allocations across the Basin.

In the towns that grew up on water from the Snowy Scheme, this is considered an act of sabotage.

Interestingly, Prime Minister Julia Gillard was spruiking the Snowy at the Labor Party’s “Light on the Hill” address last month. It would never be built today, by her government. On August 10 she promised to buy back whatever water the MDBA told her was necessary for river health. At $2,500 per megalitre, that’s effectively a $10 billion blank cheque. The PM did not mention regional Australia, agriculture, food or rural communities.


The Murray Darling Basin Board was appointed two years into the term of the last government by the previous Water Minister Penny Wong. Senator Wong showed a disrespect for farmers that was truly breathtaking and the Board has presided over a report that has this government’s fingerprints all over it.

The scientific rationale for the SDLs which MDBA has stated are a minimum for river health, have not been released. Statements are being made about huge amounts of water that need to be returned to the rivers but the model and the assumptions are secret. The environmental watering plan that will deliver the water to the 18 targeted areas appears not to have been developed at all.

The farmers I represent have no reason to believe that anyone in Canberra has a clue. For example, last year Penny Wong bought 80,000 ML of water from the Lachlan catchment for South Australia without realising that the Lachlan only reaches the Murray once every 50 years.

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About the Author

Sussan Ley is the Liberal Federal Member for Farrer

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