As floods killed two boys, forced evacuations and cut off towns, Australia yesterday began a bitter new battle over the future of the huge Murray Darling Basin.
The basin authority's new draft plan to rescue the one million sq km river system that waters the eastern states and provides about 40 per cent of the nation's food was rejected by all sides within hours of being released. Critics said the plan failed the environment, would cost thousands of jobs and would decimate rural communities. South Australia is already considering a High Court challenge.
While the political debate gained heat, the nature of Australia's precarious environment was highlighted by another round of disastrous flooding. Instead of too little water there was too much as emergency teams ordered evacuations near Moree in northwest New South Wales and prepared to fly in supplies and medical aid by helicopter to hundreds of properties isolated by floods that followed heavy weekend rain.
On Saturday a 3-year-old boy died in a stormwater drain at Bingara, near Inverell, and yesterday police and emergency workers scoured the flood-swollen Murrumbidgee River at Wagga Wagga for a 7-year-old boy swept away on Sunday afternoon. More than a dozen other people have been rescued, including drivers trapped on flooded roads.
Floods have cut off large areas around Moree and affected other towns including Tamworth, Gunnedah and Wee Waa. Major routes have been severed.
While the latest inundation will flush more water into the Murray Darling basin - which absorbed last summer's disastrous floodwaters in Queensland, NSW and Victoria - the survival of the vital system remains under serious threat.
Its fragile state was highlighted during a decade of drought that saw rivers slow to a trickle, the Murray close at its mouth in South Australia, and competition for its water soar between towns, irrigators and industry.
But the basin's problems have been compounding for decades through abuse, pollution, salination, overuse and management fragmented between rival states through which the 3300km system passes. About two million tonnes of salt still lie at the Murray's mouth at Goolwa.
Former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard launched a A$10 billion ($13.1 billion) national management plan, and a new basin authority late last year released an initial draft plan calling for cutbacks of up to 4000 gigalitres a year in water taken from its rivers. The authority reworked its proposal after furious rejection of the plan, including mass burnings of the draft plan by farmers who had already seen the population of the outback town of Bourke slashed by a quarter after its allocations were cut back.
The new draft plan, which proposes a seven-year phased introduction with a review in 2015, recommends that annual water use now be reduced by 2750 gigalitres, with the possibility of even smaller reductions.
It says the most that can be taken from the system is 10,873 gigalitres a year and, with water buybacks, growing efficiency and improved understanding and technology, smaller cuts may be needed by 2019.
In its introduction to the draft plan the basin authority says the complexities of balancing a relatively small amount of water against the demands of the driest inhabited continent should not be underestimated.
It says the system has been irrevocably changed by 200 years of European settlement and cannot be returned to its previous natural state.
"It's about finding the optimal balance between the environment, economies and communities, not settling for the lowest common denominator but building a framework for change to provide, for the long term, a healthy working basin."
Warning against a pointless tug-of-war between competing groups, authority chairman Craig Knowles said: "In the end we have to strike a balance, a balance that respects that the basin provides a lot of food and fibre and it's the home to literally hundreds of thousands of people and we need a healthy working environment."
Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke said that although there would never be consensus on basin reforms, the draft plan could restore the system to health and boost its resilience against the next drought.
But SA Premier Jay Weatherill said the plan was unfair to his state, which had already shouldered its fair share of the burden. "Ninety-three per cent of the waters of the river are taken by the upstream states and we capped our take from the river in 1969," he said.
The National Irrigators Council warned the plan would cost thousands of jobs, threaten family farms, ruin rural towns and increase food prices.
Shadow water minister Barnaby Joyce said the Government had failed to consider the economic and social impacts of the plan.
The Greens said the needs of the environment had again been downplayed and the river was being sold out for a plan that was more about political appeasement rather than robust and long-term reform.