"All parties must recognise that the old way of managing the Murray-Darling Basin has reached its use-by date. The tyranny of incrementalism and the lowest common denominator must end."
So spoke John Howard in January 2007 when he announced the National Plan for Water Security, a $10 billion plan to revolutionise the way water is managed and used in Australia.
For more than a century, our greatest system of rivers and groundwater, the Murray Darling Basin, had been recklessly over-exploited by state governments whose policies put development first, the environment a long second and, last of all, anyone and anything who happened to be downstream and across the border.
The 2007 Water Act was designed to place management of interstate water systems under the jurisdiction of the national government - ensuring the governance of the system matched the hydrology. As Howard said, "Rivers do not recognise those lines on the map that we call state borders."
The act established an independent expert body, the Murray Darling Basin Authority, given the task of setting sustainable limits on extraction of surface and ground water based on what has become the CSIRO's analysis of environmentally sustainable diversions in each valley.
An elaborate program of consultation was mandated by the act, and that is the exercise the authority is now undertaking. Finalisation of the Basin Plan inevitably involves balancing the claims of the environment against the requirements of agriculture and other water users in the basin.
That is why, contrary to the claims of Simon Crean and Tony Burke, the 2007 Water Act expressly requires the authority and minister to "act on the basis of the best available scientific knowledge and socio-economic analysis" and consider "the consumptive and other economic uses of basin water resources".
The Water Act was drafted in the closest possible consultation with farmers and irrigators and gives the government every tool it needs to implement the Basin Plan. But no legislation can give a government competence or courage, and both are needed to complete the task of water reform.
We recognised in 2007 the need for a substantial reduction in the allocation of water to agriculture. At the same time we wanted to improve food security and strengthen our rural industries and communities. That is why the centre of our vision was a commitment to invest more than $6 billion in infrastructure to ensure that, on and off farm, we could dramatically cut massive losses to evaporation and seepage - and produce more food and fibre with less water. Water saved would be shared between irrigators and the environment.
This investment in water infrastructure cannot be underestimated. It is true water saved this way is often more expensive than simply buying water entitlements on the market. But by using water more efficiently, we can maintain the productive base of irrigated agriculture while restoring environmental flows to sustainable levels.
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