Coorong Environmental Trust Bill

Mr WHETSTONE (Chaffey) (12:04): I, too, would like to rise and make a contribution to the Coorong Environmental Trust Bill. I stand here today somewhat frustrated that we again see another advocacy group wanting to be formed to deal with what has been the elephant in the room within the Murray-Darling Basin for a very long time.

My involvement has been with the agri-politics, the water politics with the River Murray and particularly with the issue we are talking about today within what is commonly known as the delta of the Murray Darling Basin. The delta is the shallow, large water expanses we encounter here in South Australia as basically the recipient of flows that come into our state and how we maximise those flows, how we continue to support a healthy environment, but also how we, again, support economy that comes away from a healthy, working river.

We all know that a healthy, working river is the best outcome we can have as a community, as a state and as the beneficiaries of what is one of the great water bodies in the world. It is a culmination of storages and unregulated streams that come into what we see here in South Australia, which is the River Murray, and the flows that are brought together by a number of tributaries. As we well know here in South Australia, we rely on flows out of the Darling and we rely on flows into the River Murray, which is the main channel that comes into our state.

Along the way, we have seen a significant amount of political interference with the running of the Murray-Darling Basin, which once was the Murray-Darling Basin commission. That body was set up to manage and also help regulate the Murray-Darling system and was then changed over to an authority. We have had many experts along the way who have made contributions to the way that those two governing bodies have been administered and run.

I want to touch on the frustration I have that we again are now seeing another body wanting to be set up. It really does come down to duplication with what we currently already have with the Friends of the Coorong. There is a group chaired by the Hon. Dean Brown AO, who is doing an outstanding job. Only Tuesday morning, I had a briefing, as did other members of the government, to better understand what is currently on the table, the way that the Coorong and the Lower Lakes will work more efficiently.

For the Murray-Darling Basin Plan to be developed and brought to fruition, many of us would understand that 3,200 gigalitres is the number that has been put on the table and it is a target. It is an achievement that what we need is better flows, we need overbank flows, but we also need those environmental purges of water to come down our river when we are not seeing natural flows and natural flood events so that we can purge salinity out into the ocean and we can purge some of that silting we see. Also, we need those flows to push some of the unwanted pests, weeds and the constraints we currently encounter.

Along the way, the Lower Lakes as it is have been declared a Ramsar site, and through the Millennium Drought we used the Ramsar connotation with the need for more flows, more water. Sadly, when we have a drought and there are not those bodies of water, we need practical action and under a previous government we continued to see what was political interference with what I call progressive action in better managing the river system to the detriment of a large amount of community along the way. Not only was it irrigators who had to give up their water and the environment that also had to give up its water but there was also a level of political interference that saw not much happen.

The previous state Labor government continued to use their levers to gain points to the detriment of irrigation communities and to the detriment of the environment. Anything below Lock 1 is basically connected to the Lower Lakes and connected to the Coorong, as well as a small amount of input from the reflows program out of the South-East, and what we saw were some tree planting programs that amounted to nothing. We saw some bunds put in place to try to hold water back in that final reach of the River Murray, which is below Lock 1, down to Narrung to the barrages and then ultimately to the mouth.

Yes, we saw dredging at the mouth to try to give some relief through a reduction in salinity, but, sadly, when we saw river and lake levels go below a point of sustainability, we saw those acid sulphate soils emerge. We saw toxic blooms that not only had an impact on the environment and wildlife but had a toxic effect on those river communities.

I must say that the level of concern was felt by many, but it became state versus state. South Australia sent an SOS to its neighbouring states that we needed to work together. We needed to come together and put solutions on the table. Sadly, there were a few unsubstantiated opinions about the solution—whether it was a saltwater solution or whether it was a freshwater solution. Those arguments are still being had today.

If we look back to yesteryear, before we saw the management of the river system with locks and weirs, regulators in our wetlands, it was a free-flowing unregulated system. If you look in the history books, you will see dry spots in the river, people walking across the river and riverboats high and dry—that is what an unregulated river system is.

Today, in that highly managed environment what we are seeing is a level of greed. To its credit, South Australia, then under Premier Steele Hall, decided to strike an agreement with the other states in capping South Australia's take. Back in 1969, we capped it at 1,850 gigalitres and that drove efficiencies here in South Australia. That drove our water users, our environment and our irrigation communities to be better at what we did, to drive efficiencies to do more with the same amount of water, while those upstream continued to take.

Nowadays, we see state governments looking after their own political interests and looking after their own constituency to the detriment of the environment. What this trust will potentially do is again clog up what I would call the progression needed to better manage our river system here in South Australia.

We know we have previously looked to irrigators and their communities to find on-farm efficiency programs to put more water back into the environment. The target of 3,200 is almost met, bar the 450 in the southern connected system, but it took 100 years to get us into the situation we are in. It is not going to be fixed overnight. It will not be fixed in one year. Potentially, it will not be fixed in 10 years.

The basin plan has been running for almost 10 years and we continue to see progress, but while we have a continuation of political interference wanting to set up more trusts, more meetings and more committees, we are not getting progress, so I urge everyone in this chamber to look at practical solutions.

We know that there is a five-point plan on the table. We know that there are off-farm efficiency measures that are looking to be put in place. We know there are proposals there to be supported with commonwealth government funding, and I urge everyone in this place to look at a solution-based approach—not more bureaucracy, not more red tape, not more stalling, because South Australia is at the bottom end of the river and we need action and we do not need more political interference.

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