WHEN former Labor leader Mark Latham was campaigning to win the 2004 federal election, he promised to add 450 gigalitres of environmental flows to the Murray River in his first term of government and an extra 1,500 within ten years.
Australian Greens leader Senator Bob Brown said he would return 1,500 gigalitres within five years – in half the time.
Back then 1,500 gigalitres seemed like a lot of water.
In a June 2003 interview for ABC Television’s Four Corners, the late Peter Cullen from the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists also mentioned 1,500 gigalitres and indicated that volume was scientifically derived.
In their Blueprint for a National Water Plan, the Wentworth Group proposed the water be returned through an annual incremental increase of 100 gigalitres for environmental flow. Based on this 2003 plan, by last year at least 800 gigalitres would need to have been returned to the river.
In fact, when campaigning during the 2010 federal election Julia Gillard said over 900 gigalitres had already been recovered.
The Wentworth Group should be happy with progress.
But it isn’t.
The group now claims no less than 4,000 gigalitres must be returned to the Murray Darling river system. The Australian Greens are also now claiming that a minimum of 4,000 gigalitres must be returned to ensure the Murray River’s survival and 7,600 gigalitres if it is to be healthy.
What has precipitated such a momentous change in the volume of water required to save the river?
In 2003 the water was apparently needed because of declining water quality and rising river salinity. This was shown to be a furphy: river salinity levels had been falling since the early 1980s since implementation of the salinity management strategy of the Murray Darling Basin Commission.
So now less, not more, water should be needed. But the focus has switched to the bottom of the system with claims more water is now needed to keep the Murray’s mouth open.
Professor Cullen was talking about the Murray’s mouth in that June 2003 Four Corners interview. Had he mentioned the need for a minimum of 4,000 gigalitres back then it would have been considered greedy.
Not any more! Expectations have changed.
I put the change down to two initiatives lead by former prime minister John Howard. In 2007 the Water Act became law, creating priority for environmental water. In the same year $10 billion was allocated for implementation of the associated Murray-Darling Basin plan.
Thanks to Mr Howard, Ms Gillard now has a legal obligation to send a volume of water about equal to the total current baseline diversions for the NSW Murray (1,812/year GL) and also the Murrumbidgee (2501 GL/year) to South Australia every year.
First published in The Land newspaper on January 19, 2012