Frustration flows as Keelty seeks out water solutions

STEP AHEAD: Langhorne Creek irrigator and grapegrower Brett Cleggett says there was some frustration about misinformation but communities and farm businesses needed confidence in the MDBP.
STEP AHEAD: Langhorne Creek irrigator and grapegrower Brett Cleggett says there was some frustration about misinformation but communities and farm businesses needed confidence in the MDBP.

CONSISTENCY across states, reduced bureaucracy and improved transparency among the Ministerial Council are among potential changes proposed for the management of the Murray-Darling Basin - but changing the basin plan itself is not one of them.

Interim Murray-Darling Basin inspector general Mick Keelty was in Langhorne Creek, South Australia, on Tuesday as part of a series of town meetings throughout the basin for his inquiry into the MDB agreement, with the report due on March 31.

The review, put in place by former Water Minister David Littleproud late last year with little support from the state water ministers, was set up to review inflows and supply of water into the MDB, water delivery, water sharing and potential opportunities for enhancement.

As Mr Keelty put it, at a time of reduced flows, he was tasked with looking for the "low-hanging fruit" of water availability.

This is just one of multiple ongoing inquiries into the MDB, with the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission due to submit its report into water trading in May, while a panel reviewing the social and economic impacts into the MDB Plan is due to report in April. There is also a CSIRO review into the Lower Lakes and barrages.

Mr Keelty said some common issues had been raised at meetings across the basin, with the lack of water literacy a big theme.

"Water literacy needs to be improved for the next generation, we need to get it back into higher education," he said.

Another repeated concern was the number of different agencies and sub-agencies involved in the MDB, making it difficult to access the correct information.

"People in business don't have time to look at them all - they need a single source of truth," he said.

He said one of the biggest problems was working with differences across state borders.

"The MDB is a national asset, but it has been divided into different constituencies, with different licenses and terminology, which is not conducive to good compliance," he said. "This is underpinned by the fact there is no consistent metering. If you can't measure what's going in and what's coming out, you can't monitor it."

He said this difference in terminology was highlighted by licensing, with SA having one class of water license - a high security license - whereas Vic and NSW have both a high security and general or low security license, which created some miscommunication about allocations.

Mr Keelty said for the MDBP to work, there needed to be a complete audit of all states, the number of licenses awarded and the water available along the system, particularly in NSW.

"Everyone says 'can the plan' but we don't have an alternative," he said.

"How can they say 'can the plan' if the plan hasn't been implemented until NSW does a water audit?"

SAME PAGE: Murray-Darling Basin Inspector General Mick Keelty speaks at a town meeting in Langhorne Creek about issues across the MDB agreement.

SAME PAGE: Murray-Darling Basin Inspector General Mick Keelty speaks at a town meeting in Langhorne Creek about issues across the MDB agreement.

Speaking at the meeting, Mundoo Island farmer and irrigator Colin Mundy said the recurring discussion surrounding barrages and the "lack of understanding about this lake" was worrying.

Hindmarsh Island farmer and Alexandrina Council councillor Melissa Rebbeck said the issue of the requirement for barrages in the system had been raised for more than half a century, "and we're getting tired of it".

Coorong fisherman Glenn Hill said there was a great deal of misunderstanding about the river system dominating the conversation on the MBD and "putting communities against each other and irrigators against the environment".

"The water through the barrages is not a waste, there is a whole ecosystem there," he said.

Langhorne Creek grapegrower and irrigator Brett Cleggett said one of the biggest impacts from this week's town meeting with interim inspector general Mick Keelty was the chance feel like the region's concerns were being heard.

Mr Cleggett, who accesses his irrigation water from the River Murray via a pipeline from Jervois, said he felt those at the end of the MDB were often forgotten in discussions about water sharing among the states, particularly in the wake of recent "can the plan" rallies.

"We want SA being heard, that's probably the most important thing," he said.

He said SA had a good story to tell, with the efficiency of its irrigation systems and high priority of the environment, and he did not want that getting lost in the noise about the MDB Plan.

Winegrape Council of SA chair and Langhorne Creek grapegrower Heather Webster said "evidence-based decision-making" was critical to success.

She also had frustrations about the national narrative of the river system.

"There are also false claims but SA gets less than 7 per cent, so let's put it in perspective," she said. "The fact that we allocate in this state very carefully is important."

Water Communities of SA spokesperson and Riverland irrigator Ian Penno, Winkie, said it was important all the water groups and communities in SA worked together to ensure the state's entitlements stayed intact.

He said there was a lot of noise from the eastern states, and some of that included concerns about the Lower Lakes, also raised in the Renmark town meeting with Mr Keelty in January, as was the suggestion of building a "lock zero" at Wellington.

Mr Penno said it was important to have the conversation, but more important for SA to have a united message about its high levels of efficiency and regulation.

He said there was an opportunity to improve communication across the entire basin.

"We've got so much in common with what we agree on for how to manage the MDB, and just small areas where we don't understand each other's situations properly," he said.

Clem Mason, who operates a dairy farm on the shore of Lake Albert, said he was hopeful some good would come out of the meeting.

"At the end of the day, he writes it down in a report but we need politicians to look at it," he said.

He said there was a lot of sympathy in the area about those experiencing the drought in the eastern states but he said the answer was not taking water away from the environmental allocations, such as those designated for the Lower Lakes.

"Without a healthy environment we don't have a business and we don't have a river," he said. "The MDB has been taking a hit for the past 20 years, but (we don't know) how big of a hit."

Mr Keelty commended the SA system, admiring its use of pipes and metering systems.

He also pointed to a move by Vic Water Minister Lisa Neville to embargo water licenses for new permanent plantings in that state, saying it might work across the basin.

"In the past 20 years, there has been quite a significant lessening of the inflows into the system," he said.

Mr Keelty agreed with a comment from meeting attendee and Basin Community Committee member Emily Jenke that transparency needed to be improved during meetings of the state Water Ministers, with this included in his report.

He also had concerns about the politicising of differing scientific reports, and would recommend the formation of an "independent science group".

"We need to stop the government playing political football and get the science right," he said.

He said he wanted his efforts to be more than "a report on a website somewhere".

"I need to come back and be accountable for the report that I've written," he said.

This story Frustration flows as Keelty seeks out water solutions first appeared on Stock Journal.