Science

Scientists offer qualified support for Murray-Darling Basin Plan

The Murray-Darling Basin
Wednesday, 1 December, 2010
Bob Beale

Public debate about plans to revive the ailing Murray-Darling Basin river system so far has been dominated by concern about negative, short-term impacts, with little consideration of the long-term benefits of a healthy river system, according to a statement signed by 58 prominent environmental scientists.

Issued today, the statement says the costs of doing nothing would be unacceptable to everyone and that the recently released Guide to the Basin Plan by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority offered an historic opportunity to correct past mistakes.

The signatories include five UNSW academics from the UNSW School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences and the Australian Wetlands and Rivers Centre.

Spokesman Professor Richard Kingsford says that while public discussion of job losses and economic impacts is important, it is equally important to recognise that the scientific evidence for the poor ecological condition of rivers and wetlands in the Basin is unequivocal.

The statement also says the Guide does not make enough allowance for the likely impacts of climate change.

The full statement is:

"The Guide to the Basin Plan, released by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority in October 2010, has attracted criticism, mainly for its social and economic implications.

"As environmental scientists, we are concerned that discussions so far have been dominated by concern about negative, short-term impacts. There has been little consideration of the long-term benefits of a healthy river system.

"The costs of ‘doing nothing’ would be unacceptable to everyone. Instead, the Basin Plan will offer a historic, nation-building opportunity to correct past mistakes and plan for the future. It would enable us to maintain a healthy economy while protecting our natural heritage. It is about securing long-term prosperity.

"In this statement, we highlight some key points of scientific consensus:

• The proposals to reduce annual extractions by 3000-4000 GL are a minimal requirement for ecosystem health. They would bring significant benefits, but ecosystem recovery would increase in proportion to the quantity of water available to the environment, and the proposals fall well short of the 7600 GL target that has been nominated for long-term sustainability. The Guide does not clearly describe outcomes from these flow scenarios; this should be addressed, with assistance from the wider science community.

• The central issue is the combined long-term welfare of the environment and the human communities that it supports. The costs and benefits of re-adjustment would be shared among all Australians. Benefits include improved ‘goods and services’, such as more reliable water supplies, better quality water for irrigation, flooding for grazing, improved fishing and new opportunities for tourism.

• The scientific evidence for the poor ecological condition of rivers and wetlands in the Basin is unequivocal. Regulation and extractions have changed patterns of flow, affected ecological processes, threatened native fauna and flora and favoured alien species. Increased tree dieback, salinisation, acid sulfate soils and recurrent algal blooms are further evidence of degradation. In hydrological terms, median flows to the sea now are reduced by 71 percent of natural flows and by as much as 89-96 percent in dry periods. Daily flows out to sea are zero for 40 percent of the time, compared to one per cent under natural conditions.

• Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar wetlands) throughout the Basin are deteriorating. Australia is having difficulty complying with its own legislation, and with its obligations under the international Ramsar Convention.

• The Guide makes insufficient allowances for the likely impacts of climate change. It acknowledges that the Basin may be 10 percent drier than now under a median 2030 scenario, yet allows for only a 3 percent reduction in the current extraction limit. A realistic allowance is needed, with explicit advice about the requirements for water-sharing plans."

Signatories

Associate Professor Paul Adam, Australian Wetlands and Rivers Centre, University of NSW

Dr Kane Aldridge, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide

Professor Angela Arthington, Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University

Dr Stephen Balcombe, Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University

Associate Professor Leon Barmuta, University of Tasmania

Adjunct Professor Andrew Boulton, University of New England

Dr Nick Bond, Monash University

Professor Paul Boon, Victoria University

Dr Kate Brandis, Australian Wetlands and Rivers Centre, University of NSW

Dr Margaret Brock, University of Tasmania

Dr Sam Capon, Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University

Dr Shaun Cunningham, Australian Centre for Biodiversity, Monash University

Professor Peter Davies, Director of Centre of Excellence, University of Western Australia

Professor Peter Fairweather, Flinders University

Associate Professor Brian Finlayson, Department of Resource Management and Geography, University of Melbourne

Dr Michael Geddes, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide

Associate Professor Bronwyn Gillanders, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide

Dr Chris Gippel, Department of Resource Management and Geography, University of Melbourne

Adjunct Associate Professor John Harris, Department of Environmental Management and Ecology, La Trobe University

Professor Ann Henderson-Sellers, Environment and Geography, Macquarie University

Adjunct Professor Terry Hillman, La Trobe University

Dr Paul Humphries, School of Environmental Sciences, Charles Sturt University

Dr Anne Jensen, Environmental Consultant, Adelaide

Dr Mark Kennard, Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University

Dr Cassandra James, Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University

Dr Kim Jenkins, Australian Wetlands and River Centre, University of New South Wales

Dr Rebecca Lester, Flinders University

Dr Simon Linke, Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University

Associate Professor Mark Lintermans, Institute for Applied Ecology, University of Canberra

Dr Nick Marsh, Yorb Pty Ltd

Dr Tara Martin, University of Queensland

Emeritus Professor Tom McMahon, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Melbourne

Professor Wayne Meyer, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide

Dr Kerri Muller, Applied Ecologist, Principal Kerri Muller NRM

Dr Lucy Nairn, Australian Wetlands and River Centre, University of New South Wales

Dr Jon Nevill, University of Tasmania

Professor Richard Norris, Director of Institute for Applied Ecology, University of Canberra

Dr Justyna Paplinska, Zoology Department, University of Melbourne

Associate Professor David Paton, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide

Dr Sophie Petit, School of Natural and Built Environments, University of South Australia

Mr Jamie Pittock, Crawford School of Economics and Government, Australian National University

Dr Tim Ralph, Department of Environment and Geography, Macquarie University

Dr Tom Rayner, Australian Wetlands and River Centre, University of New South Wales

Mr Julian Reid, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University

Associate Professor Belinda Robson, Murdoch University

Dr Darren Ryder, School of Environmental and Rural Science, University of New England

Dr Fran Sheldon, Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University

Dr Michael Stewardson, Melbourne School of Engineering, University of Melbourne

Professor Brian Timms, University of NSW

Dr Ross Thompson, Deputy Director, Australian Centre for Biodiversity, School of Biological Sciences, Monash University

Associate Professor Robyn Watts, Institute for Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University

Dr Skye Wassens, Institute for Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University

Dr Angus Webb, Department of Resource Management and Geography, University of Melbourne

UNSW media contact:

Bob Beale - 0411 705 435 bbeale@unsw.edu.au

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