David Wroe March 12, 2012
No credible information ... green groups have criticised Tony Burke. Photo: Jessica Shapiro
CRITICS from both sides of the controversial draft plan to save the Murray-Darling Basin are branding the 20-week public consultation a farce because important pieces of information needed to properly assess the plan are still missing.
More than halfway through the public consultation period, the independent Murray-Darling Basin Authority has acknowledged that an important CSIRO study on the environmental benefits of helping the basin is yet to be published.
Twenty green groups wrote to the Environment Minister, Tony Burke, and the authority chairman, Craig Knowles, a fortnight ago demanding extra information. They say it is impossible to gauge what the environmental benefits of various options will be.
''There is basically no credible information about what this draft plan will mean for the environment,'' said Jonathan La Nauze, spokesman for Friends of the Earth. ''They are deliberately missing key bits of information to make a failed plan look like the best plan, which it isn't.''
Under the basin authority's $9 billion draft plan, released in November, an extra 2750 billion litres of water in the Murray-Darling river system would be set aside for environmental use, mostly through buying back irrigators' water rights. But Mr La Nauze said the basin authority needed to model the benefits of 4000 billion litres - the upper amount originally proposed.
The groups also called for hard data on whether it was economically feasible to get around so-called ''constraints'' such as the risk of flooding private land or overwhelming bridges, which Mr Burke says limits how much extra water can be pumped into the system.
On the other side of the debate, the National Irrigators' Council chairman, Tom Chesson, demanded the government release the overdue CSIRO multiple benefits study, which is supposed to improve the understanding of how environmental benefits can be weighed against the economic impact to irrigation-dependent communities such as the Goulburn Valley in Victoria and the Murrumbidgee region in NSW.
''Four months later and we are still waiting,'' Mr Chesson said. "The MDBA are continuing on their merry way, preparing the basin plan with incomplete socio-economic analysis based on the presumption that the benefits … outweigh the costs.''
The consultation and public submission period ends on April 16. The NSW Irrigators' Council chief executive, Andrew Gregson, said the assessment of the economic impact of the plan released so far had been woeful.
''How can you ask the Murrumbidgee to sign up to the basin plan not knowing whether it's going to cost them 20, 50 or 100 per cent of their economy?'' he said.
The basin authority chief executive, Rhondda Dickson, acknowledged the CSIRO report was overdue but said the work was difficult and the scientists involved had asked for more time.
There was more information to come on aspects of the plan, though no more detail on the economic impact, she said. ''All you can ever do with the analysis is get some basic information. There are so many factors that affect an economy: commodity prices, rain, flooding, competitive pressures from other industries."
The minister, Mr Burke said the river system constraints such as the Barmah Choke, Menindee Lakes and certain narrow channels had been well-explained in the consultation documents.
"On each side of the debate, there will always be groups calling for endless additional studies which will simply result in this process never reaching a conclusion," he said, adding that he intended to have a plan in place this year.
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