18 October 2023

I move amendment (1):

(1) Schedule 1, page 5 (before line 3), before item 2, insert:

1A At the end of subsection 86AA(2)


Note: Environmental outcomes can also be enhanced in other ways, including increasing the volume of water resources available for environmental use in the Darling-Baaka or in other northern parts of the Murray-Darling Basin.

This amendment is in relation to the new provisions of the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023 which would allow the Water for the Environment Special Account to be used to purchase water entitlements toward the 450 gigalitres for environmental outcomes. It seeks to explicitly use the special account, including via buybacks, to enhance environmental outcomes in the northern basin. The purpose of this amendment is to ensure that water recovery undertaken by the government towards the 450-gigalitre target is strategic. The government should target water recovery to deliver the maximum environmental benefit at the lowest socioeconomic and environmental cost. Water purchases along the Darling/Baaka or in other parts of the northern parts of the Murray-Darling Basin offer the best potential to achieve this.

When considering this bill I consulted widely, with water expert Lee Baumgartner at the Gulbali Institute; with Suzanna Sheed and Rob Priestly from the Goulburn-Murray Irrigation District; with Dr Anna Roberts and Patten Bridge from the Water for Indi group of experts, which I convened in 2019; with the heads of the local catchment management authorities; with farmers, including Jock Blakeney and Jan Beer on the Goulburn; and with scientists from the Wentworth Group—all underlined to me that the government’s approach to water purchases must be strategic. It must consider all areas of the basin, it must aim to maximise benefits and minimise negative impacts, and it should be equitable in terms of distribution of impacts.

Part of such a strategic approach involves recognising the physical limits of the basin system. My electorate of Indi is not only the source of more than half of all the water flowing into the basin but also home to the basin’s three largest water storages. As a result, the majority of environmental water already recovered is stored in Indi and flows through Indi. Environmental flows at their existing levels already have considerable negative socioeconomic and environmental impacts. During my visit to farmers along the Goulburn in Indi last week, floodwaters had inundated high-value farmland and destroyed silage, crops, pasture and fencing. High-flow releases of environmental water from the Eildon Weir have cut into the bank of the river, literally undermining century-old red gums, causing them to topple over. Erosion leads to sediment flowing down the river, with detriment to water quality and native fish habitat.

Increases in environmental flows coming out of storage in Indi will only worsen environmental outcomes in these upper reaches of the Goulburn and Murray. Local land and water management organisations have clearly stated that if water is stored in Indi there is almost no way of getting it to South Australia without significant further riverbank erosion from high flows. The potential for further negative environmental impacts in Indi seems particularly inequitable when contrasted with the years of mismanagement and resultant overextraction and environmental collapse across the northern basin.

The dire state of the northern basin is unacceptable and should shock all Australians, yet what is clear from this current reality is that the greatest potential for improvements to environmental outcomes is in the northern basin. This bill as it stands may not restore the health and connectivity of the Darling/Baaka that’s so desperately needed. My amendment ensures that efforts to increase environmental water flow in the most degraded part of the Murray-Darling Basin are absolutely on the table.

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