Basin plan delivers a pretty raw deal

Our lead campaigner, Jonathan La Nauze, has an opinion piece in the Canberra Times this week:

Craig Knowles has a plan for Australia's greatest river. It's a compromised plan, he admits, but trade-offs have to be made; river health balanced with the demands of irrigated agriculture. Problem is, no one has spelt out what the plan will actually do for the river. With Tony Burke poised to clinch the deal with $10 billion of public money, we deserve to know what we're paying for.

In the dying weeks of its five-month consultation period, Knowles' authority slipped 25 volumes of environmental analysis onto its website. The last came only a week before submissions closed.

Buried in the backwaters of these dense, technical reports is a meticulously documented story of ecological decline and policy failure. I spent the last days of the submission period piecing it together.

The Murray-Darling Basin covers 14 per cent of the continent and contains some 30,000 wetlands spread throughout 23 river systems. If you're trying to measure the health of something so big and complex, where do you start?

The authority began by shortlisting 2442 key sites and selected a subset of them as indicators of broader system health, with particular attention paid to 24 iconic sites. For these indicator sites, 112 ecological targets were developed - benchmarks like keeping fish alive, or maintaining the health of woodlands.

Computer models then tested the plan, seeing how it measured up against these benchmarks. Of those 24 key sites, only one achieved its targets at safe levels. Another five scraped through with ''high levels of uncertainty''. Of the 112 ecological targets, Knowles's plan failed 48 of them.

But is that really so bad? These are ''working rivers'', after all. We can't expect to recreate pristine wilderness in Australia's most productive agricultural region.
Certainly not, but that was never the benchmark. The 112 ecological targets already embody massive compromise. Failure to meet them means simply that. Failure, not a balanced outcome. So how will the basin's 16 internationally significant Ramsar-listed wetlands fare under the plan? I was surprised at the starkness of the results.

Of the 10 Ramsar sites subjected to detailed modelling, eight failed the Ramsar benchmark. Under Knowles's plan at least half of these wetlands would become so degraded Australia would be in breach of its international obligations.

There has already been significant coverage of what this means for the Coorong and the Chowilla Floodplain, South Australia's two main Ramsar sites. But the plan fails far more than just the long-suffering bottom of the river.

In Victoria's Wimmera lies Lake Albacutya, listed on the Ramsar Convention in 1982. A quintessentially Australian lake, it dries out from time to time. To survive the dry years, fringing red gum and black box woodlands need the lake to fill up every so often, and stay full for a good two years. This also gives waterbirds a chance to breed. Events like this used to happen about once every 10 years, but the MDBA believes every 20 will keep things ticking over, and maintain the lake's Ramsar status. Under the proposed plan it will happen only once every 190 years.

A thousand kilometres away on the Balonne River system in northern NSW lie the Narran Lakes. They joined the Ramsar list in 1999. Of five ecological targets for the site, the proposed plan fails four. Unique communities of lignum and river cooba, grasslands and coolibah will permanently decline. And colonial nesting waterbirds are just going to have to find some place else to breed.

The story is repeated around the basin. Red gum and black box woodland in Victoria's Ramsar-listed Barmah and Gunbower forests will die out. Waterbirds will fail to breed in the lower Goulburn, Gunbower and the mid-Murrumbidgee. Native fish will struggle in the Edward-Wakool, the lower Macintyre and pretty much the entire length of the Darling River.

The more you look into the fine print, Craig Knowles's plan looks less like a bargain and more like a lemon. I am no ideologue. I am not arguing for a pristine river. But for $10 billion I think we deserve a healthy one.