Talks spring hopes of path forward on water

Adrian Black |

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has given a short message to a Murray Darling Basin conference.
Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has given a short message to a Murray Darling Basin conference.

Voices of the Murray Darling Basin have converged to discuss the waterway’s future, but consensus on how the resource is managed could still be a long way downstream.

Passionate talks have continued on how best to manage Australia’s biggest river system on day two of the Murray Darling Basin Authority’s River Reflections conference in Albury in southern NSW.

Where the Murray River meets the sea southeast of Adelaide, the lower lakes region near the Murray’s mouth has had an algal bloom since Easter, wetland ecologist Anne Jensen told AAP.

“It’s a tropical species that we haven’t seen at that end of the river before, surviving through the cold winter temperatures and not enough flow to disperse it,” Dr Jensen said.

She said current environmental flows have not been enough to stop environmental degradation, and certainly weren’t not enough to fix water quality downstream.

“We’ve struggled with delays in the water-sharing plans in New South Wales in particular,” Dr Jensen said.

“So we’re just hoping that the conversations can continue with everybody and we get a real understanding of what’s happening across the basin.”

In a virtual address that went for less than four minutes, federal Environment and Water Minister Tanya Plibersek said 16 of 20 NSW water recovery plans had been accredited.

She confirmed extensions to water recovery time frames and said $300 million would be available to each state for communities impacted by water buybacks.

So far under the basin plan, 2186 gigalitres of water have been returned to the system, well short of the annual target of 3200 gigalitres.

ecologist Anne Jensen
The lower lakes region near the Murray’s mouth has had an algal bloom since April, Anne Jensen says. (Adrian Black/AAP PHOTOS)

Tanya Thompson, from southern NSW’s Murrumbidgee Valley, Yanco Creek and Tributaries Advisory Council, called government talk of community support “lip service”.

“There’s no solutions there,” Ms Thompson said.

“There’s a recognition that the communities are going to be degraded through this next process.”

Ms Thompson said environmental concerns should be balanced in-line with effects on communities along the river system and that the basin authority needed to do better.

“(They) can’t continue to say that ‘we’re learning on the job’, well they’ve been in the job for over a decade,” she said.

In a breakaway session, Monash University research fellow and Wiradyuri woman Kate Harriden railed against colonialism in Australian water policy and noted Indigenous exclusion.

She called on listeners to decolonise their minds.

“You need to, for example, be familiar with the massacre map, and how many of the massacres recorded are related to the control of water or at water sites,” Ms Harriden said.

Andrew McConville (centre)
Basin authority chief Andrew McConville (centre) concedes more needs to be done. (Adrian Black/AAP PHOTOS)

Many of the massacres lived on in place names.

“Fancy thinking it’s OK to call a massacre site Skull Creek, yet in Victoria and Queensland there is such a place,” Ms Harriden said.

“Names reflecting the wholesale killing to exert power and set rules, rather than seeking to learn the rules already in place or even bothered to ask if rules existed.”

Murray Darling Basin Authority chief executive Andrew McConville thanked Ms Harriden for her uncompromising presentation.

“Kate challenged us and governments on how poor we are at recognising Indigenous cultural practice,” he said.

“I love Kate’s energy to call us out in terms of places we’re not doing well enough.”

Mr McConville closed with an insight from Wurundjeri elder Uncle Andrew Gardiner.

“We’ve got to do more, but we got to do it now,” he said.