When officials were tasked with designing the national plan to manage the flows of the Murray–Darling Basin, they were supposed to use the best available science to calculate how much water would need to be diverted from irrigators’ allowances to support the environment.
But according to one who was involved, the method used to determine how many thousand billion litres should be recovered was far from scientific. They joked about basing the first four digits of the figure on a random NSW postcode.
Speaking to the Murray–Darling Basin Royal Commission, former Murray–Darling Basin Authority official David Bell said this was because there was a “very clear understanding” coming from the board and management that whatever the figure was, it had to begin “with a number two”.
This line of inquiry prompts more questions: why is the federal government going to so much trouble – and risking having the High Court rule once and for all that the states can compel the Commonwealth all they like – to stop a handful of officials appearing and some documents being handed over?
John Clements, a former adviser to the independent MP Tony Windsor, said he had reflected on his experience on the Northern Basin Advisory Committee (NBAC), which ran from 2012 to 2016 and concluded it was used “to rubber-stamp the ambitions of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority” to deliver a major cut to the 390GL environmental water target.
In scathing evidence to the South Australian royal commission into the Murray-Darling river system, Clements said the committee formed the view the MDBA’s modelling and data was deficient.
Yet he said the authority consistently refused to acknowledge the failings of its hydrological modelling, which did not take account of climate change, natural losses in the system and was informed by limited data on what was really happening in the river.
The former head of water policy in New South Wales, David Harriss, says he was “moved on” from his job after clashing with the water minister, Kevin Humphries, over plans to increase compliance levels among irrigators.
Harriss, who worked in the office of water for 25 years, also claimed cotton interests in the Barwon-Darling were extremely influential in determining water policy in NSW and that he struggled to get NSW water ministers to take steps to protect environmental flows in the Barwon-Darling.
He said there was often lobbying to lift embargoes on pumping water when the rivers were low.
In one particularly dry year cotton farmers in the Gwydir and Namoi valleys had needed extra water to finish growing a crop, but preferred not to go to the water market to buy it, he said. Instead they lobbied the minister for access to environmental water.
Northern irrigators said, ‘don’t invest the $50m in our area on meters because the water we’d be giving back is far too great’,”
The South Australian Royal Commission into the Murray Darling Basin continues to unearth serious problems in the MDBA’s implementation of the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
“A summary of the evidence so far would be that the basin authority’s alleged science is, in fact, not science,” Mr Beasley told commissioner Bret Walker on Thursday.
“It is open to find that they know that. It is open to find that they have supplanted policy or a political position for scientific evidence.
“It’s certainly open to find that their science and economic analysis just does not stack up.”
The $13 billion Murray-Darling Basin plan is “a fraud on the environment” that may be unlawful, the South Australian royal commission into the basin has heard on its first day of hearings.
“The whole point of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was to restore the health of the dying river by taking some of the overallocated water away from irrigators and putting some of the water back in the system.”