As the first European to view the plains of the Riverina in 1817, John Oxley despaired of 'a country which for bareness and desolation has no equal.'
A century later he would have said the same. During the Federation Drought, in 1914, the Murray River ran dry. A century later it would have run dry again during the Millennium Drought but for the release of water from dams.
In 2010, on the other hand, the Murray Darling Basin received record breaking rain, filling dams to capacity and causing widespread flooding. Dorothea Mackellar's famous description of 'a land of droughts and flooding rains' was never more true.
These were obviously natural events, and yet many saw the Millennium Drought as reason to panic. There arose a bizarre perception that this time it was different, and that it might never rain properly again. The result was the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
This plan is a blueprint for returning a large volume of water to the environment, through a combination of reduced supply to agriculture and fewer losses during movement and storage.
A Senate Select Committee, which I chaired, has been investigating the impacts of the Basin Plan. Its report was tabled in parliament last week.
The committee received numerous submissions and held eight public hearings in each of the basin states. While there was no serious opposition to better use of water for the environment, there were numerous concerns about the way the plan is being implemented.
The most common concerns came from rural communities suffering a decline in irrigated agriculture. While most affected farmers voluntarily sold their water rights to the government, there has been nothing voluntary about the decline of businesses that provide goods and services to those farmers, the businesses of those handling and marketing the commodities, or the consequences of people moving out of the area.
Senators Bob Day, John Madigan and I produced 31 recommendations, which Government senators signed onto. Labor also supported many, leaving only the Greens and their kindred spirit Nick Xenophon with major disagreements.
Among the committee's recommendations is for the Water Act to be amended to make clear that economic, social and environmental needs and outcomes ought to have equal standing. We do not want to drain the Murray and we cannot return the environment to what it was prior to European settlement, but we also do not want to send businesses broke, destroy jobs or ruin people's lives.
The committee recommended the Productivity Commission undertake a long overdue cost-benefit analysis of the Basin Plan, including analysis of the value of foregone production and food processing due to reduced irrigation water. The dairy industry in northern Victoria has lost so much irrigation water that production has not returned to levels preceding the Millennium Drought, notwithstanding growing global demand for dairy products.
Another recommendation is for a study into whether the Ramsar listing of the SA Lower Lakes should be estuarine rather than fresh water, and whether the barrages near the mouth of the Murray, which prevent the Lower Lakes from returning to an estuary, should be modified or removed. The committee heard evidence that much of the fresh water sent down the river to the Lower Lakes simply evaporates and could be replaced by sea water. Contrary to previous claims, we also heard a weir or lock near Wellington was feasible, which would protect the supply of fresh water to Adelaide and South Australian irrigators and landowners.
Other recommendations relate to the need to secure Broken Hill's water supply, to have the Commonwealth assume liability for damage to private property when it is flooded without owners' consent, and to hold a judicial inquiry into maladministration and possible corruption in the Victorian Government's Goulburn Murray Water Connections Project.
Finally, the committee recommended an end to further buybacks of water. Large untargeted water buybacks during the drought, before the Plan was adopted, were opportunistic, non-strategic and are a continuing heavy burden on some communities. Communities and farming simply cannot have so much of their water taken away and then be left to fend for themselves.
Since Oxley's time we have created best practice agricultural production and built an irrigation system the envy of the world, supported by vibrant entrepreneurial communities. It does not serve anyone to cripple that through a panic-based reimagining of reality.