The Murray River system drains an area the size of Spain and France put together, and sources its water from four states and the ACT. It supports a wide variety of ecological, social and economic values. The Murray Darling is truly a river of national significance.
It’s also a river in strife. The Coorong wetlands are on life-support with the Murray Mouth requiring round-the-clock dredging to keep it open. Redgum woodlands and forests across vast areas of the Murray’s floodplains are literally dying for a drink. The federal government has listed half the native fish species as threatened with extinction. By 2020 Adelaide’s tap water supplies from the Murray may be too salty to drink on two days out of five.
There are lots of things wrong with the Murray but the threshold issue is a lack of water to sustain the river’s ecological processes. Typical flows to the sea have been reduced by three quarters. Could you survive without three quarters of your blood supply? Of course not and neither can the Murray.
The best available science shows that 1,500 gigalitres (about three Sydney harbours-full) of additional environmental water, plus improvements to infrastructure and water-quality, could deliver a healthy working river. Nothing less will do.
Achieving this requires a $1,500 million, 10 year commitment from the Commonwealth, state and territory governments in setting out a clear pathway and timetable for returning the Murray to health.
At the recent June COAG meeting in Canberra, the Prime Minister and premiers reached consensus on two new agreements: an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) on a National Water Initiative and an intergovernmental agreement addressing over-allocation and environmental objectives in the Murray Darling Basin (the Murray agreement).
Although the Murray agreement is explicitly intended to address water over allocation and achieve environmental objectives in the Murray-Darling Basin, its scope is limited to implementing a decision, announced by federal and state governments last year. The so-called "First Step" decision to invest $500 million over 5 years, targets a limited amount of environmental water – 500 gigalitres – to six "icon" sites along the Murray. As for what the Murray needs beyond this "First Step", this new agreement is silent.
As it stands, last month’s agreement falls well short of a guarantee to restore the Murray to health. While we welcome confirmation of last year’s “First Step” agreement, neither the Prime Minister, nor the Premiers of NSW or Victoria, have acknowledged that the Murray needs at least 1,500 gigalitres in extra annual flow to restore it to "healthy working" condition.
The outcome of the latest COAG meeting is a half-way house that failed to live up to its promise. The bottom line is that no new government funds were committed to the Murray, or to any other stressed rivers for that matter. By itself, the “First Step” can only deliver a third of the water the Murray River really needs.
With a federal election looming, ACF believes that the next federal government – whoever they are – must commit to restore the Murray to health within the next decade.
Last year the Federal ALP committed to returning 1,500 gigalitres in annual flows to the Murray over a 10-year timeframe. And this year they committed to an extra $150m beyond the $500m "First Step". That’s encouraging.
To date, the federal Coalition is yet to match this commitment, and nor has it put any more money on the table.
This election is a unique opportunity for us to leave something of lasting value for the future – a healthy Murray. Our kids deserve nothing less. We should expect all parties to commit to this great goal, and hold them to account at the ballot box if they don’t.
It’s our Murray, and it’s your choice.
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