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Bulk water entitlements: There's a hole in the bucket, Mr Brumby

Greg Barber: Disallowed Bulk water Entitlements lack detail, provide no environmental warranty

Mr BARBER (Northern Metropolitan) -- It is very clear to me what the impact of this motion being passed will be, and that is nil. The Greens' only interest in this particular resolution is to attempt to get the government to the negotiating table to deliver on some of the rhetoric that was promised at the beginning, and for that matter to deliver an outcome for the environment.

"Lip-service to the environment has been the defining characteristic of this entire debate."

This project started as a duplicitous political exercise and it is going to finish the same way, and everything that the coalition and government speakers have said today just reinforces that. We are in an environmental crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin, and lip service to the environment has been the defining characteristic of this entire debate. What the Greens are trying to achieve here is a skerrick of improvement in the Murray-Darling Basin's current ecological state.

If the government in its initial promises was going to be delivering on that, it would be delivering it here today chapter and verse in the text of this agreement. It is clear it is not because aside from some nebulous words -- 75 gigalitres to the environment -- there is no environmental warranty here, and I will spend most of my contribution describing why that is the case.

Government is refusing to make its 'business case' available for scrutiny

Certainly, though, this issue does deserve financial scrutiny. I have already moved a reference to a parliamentary committee whereby that can occur, but the one thing we need as legislators, and the one thing that every Victorian should have access to, is the business case -- the government's fundamental decision-making document -- for this project, and it is the one thing that government will never, ever hand over.

Desal plant and North-South Pipeline related

We saw that yesterday where the government, in record time, turned around a request for the business case relating to the desalination plant, and since both this project and the desalination plant are feeding into the same group of water users, the business case for one and the business case for the other relate directly to each other. That is obvious and fundamental. In fact, it is the entire basis on which water policy, in its requirement to be commercial for water users, is founded. But as long as the government point-blank refuses to tell Victorians what this project costs and what it will deliver by way of water dollars per megalitre, we cannot even begin to have that debate.

Destroying farming communities

The social impact is important. It is unfolding before our eyes across the Murray-Darling Basin. The social ecology of irrigation farmers is in turmoil as much as the other environmental values that the Greens would frequently speak of. But again this project is but one driver of that.

How it is occurring is not something that was examined up-front, nor is there a single source to understand that if you are concerned about the social impact of this project, which we are. The social impacts of this and the effects of climate change together are profound.

Environmental costing of project avoided and no responsibility taken - "Suck it and see"

I will turn back to the environmental question which has bobbed up and down in the political debate as we have gone along and never once has been definitively nailed down. What is the environmental cost of this project? This represents a new low for the government in the way it is willing to treat the environmental issues surrounding a project. The best illustration of that is in the Minister for Planning's decision under the Environmental Effects Act where he gives his reasons for not requiring an EES. It states:
“Any impacts of modified hydrological regimes on aquatic and riparian ecosystems are unlikely to be amenable to detailed, predictive studies (such as which might form part of an EES), but are instead suited to mitigation through adaptive management of water flows to maintain ecological values.”

There is a lot of jargon there. To break it down for you: 'We have no idea about the impacts of this project; therefore, we will track them as we go along. Therefore, why bother doing an EES?'. That is a process issue, but it is major concern to the Greens in the Parliament because we are here to legislate and when the legislation we deal with and rely on allows that kind of behaviour by a government, the process issue is very important.

Approval from Federal Government still not granted

Secondly, this project has not yet received approval from the federal government.

As with a number of other projects, the government likes to get the thing under way, sign the contracts, do every other approval it needs, get the guy sitting on the back of the bulldozer with the engine running, and then say, 'Let's get approval from the federal government for matters of national environmental significance'.

The reason I say this one is a new low is that they have gone past that and have already started the works, and they are arguing, perhaps correctly, that the works per se -- the lining of the channels, the installation of meters and so forth -- in and of themselves have no environmental significance, or minimal environmental significance; it is how we use the water operationally afterwards that has the environmental significance. The government has used that with a compliant federal minister to say, 'We are going to build the thing and then we will ask for environmental approval from the federal minister'.

Government jugganaut designed to dishearten and overwhelm democratic objection

This is all designed to keep the politics rolling, to keep pushing the thing along to overwhelm everybody else, to dishearten anybody who might want to put a contrary view, to fight this issue, to stand up, and that is why I say the politics here are absolutely duplicitous.

The Coalition needs to come clean as well

But they are equally so from the coalition. With the greatest respect to my next-door neighbour here, Mr Hall, who was sincere in the statements that he made, he almost completely ducked the issue of what the coalition would do. He hinted at one point that if there was a genuine audit of the savings and the savings were found to be real, then maybe they could be shared 75-75-75 amongst the three users.

Mr Hall -- Simultaneously.

Mr BARBER -- Simultaneously. He did not say, 'That is the coalition's position'. We just sort of sensed that that might be a good idea. That is not good enough because we are in the run-up to the election now.

He talked on a number of occasions about promises that the government had made and broken, but he did not take the opportunity to make any himself.

This is the opportunity to do that because we are putting together in this document the bulk entitlement which controls the allocation of water in this basin.

It is simply not enough for the wannabe, alternative government -- the opposition -- to say the government has broken its promises. Here it should be saying, 'This is the bulk entitlement. This is the alternative bulk entitlement that we will move if we are the government in 18 months time'.

The Real impacts

I now turn to the real impacts. There is more than enough information in the proponent's documents -- that is, the Northern Victorian Irrigation Renewal Project (NVIRP) documents -- to start to shine a light on the real environmental impacts. Some aspects of that document give us a real and scary picture of what might happen.

Other documents simply attempt to model it, fail, say data is insufficient and gloss over it.

The Minister for Planning's conditions then reflect this by saying, 'We will suck it and see with this project'.

For example, we know a large part of the savings that are meant to be generated here are from outfalls -- that is, situations where water is going down an irrigation channel and for various reasons cannot go to the place it is supposed to go. It gets to the end of the channel and overflows into what is normally a low point in the district, which in the past has often been a natural wetland. It has also been a river or sometimes a drain that has been constructed -- those drains go somewhere and sometimes they end up in rivers or wetlands. On other occasions the water is sucked out of the drain and used for some other lower value agricultural use -- that is, an agricultural use that requires a lower value or reliability of water.

The document details specific instances where these so-called savings will in fact be savings at the expense of the environment. The government is taking water from the environment and then saying, 'We are great guys. We are giving 75 gigalitres to the environment'. While that might work nicely as a book exercise and may not be able to be interrogated terribly well through a question without notice -- and I have asked a number of those over a number of years seeking data on this project as we have gone along -- it does not stand up when you start to look at some hard data.

Consider Lake Elizabeth in the Kerang Lakes which prior to this investigation was receiving outfalls of 400 megalitres a year, according to the estimates available. That is 400 megalitres of real water; that is measured water. Remember when we talk about 75 gigalitres, we are talking about a 75-gigalitre entitlement. So far this year, from what I can see on Goulburn-Murray Water's website, entitlements for every system are shaping up to be zero.

With the traditional irrigation season having already started, allocations for the Murray, Broken, Goulburn, Campaspe, Loddon and Bullarook Creek systems are zero. A 75-gigalitre entitlement times 0 per cent allocation equals zero water. The practical effect of this bulk entitlement being passed now for this coming season is zero. That is why the Greens are opposing it: in practical terms, leaving out the process issues I started to address, it makes no difference right now. The government, if it wanted to, could stand up right now and move a motion to defer this debate and enter into some negotiations with the Greens to achieve a genuine environmental outcome and even a better outcome than envisaged.

By the way, it is interesting to look at historical seasonal allocations for different water systems because as recently as 2001-02 a number of these systems were getting 200 per cent of their water allocations. As recently as 2005-06 systems were receiving 170 per cent of their water allocations.

In the last two years -- taking the Goulburn and the Murray as the two biggest systems -- the Murray allocation has fallen from 144 per cent to 95 per cent to 43 per cent to quite possibly 0 per cent this year, while the Goulburn allocation has fallen from 100 per cent to 29 per cent to 57 per cent to 0 per cent as far as we know. That is how fast, from an irrigator's point of view, this problem appears to have snuck up on the government. From an environmental entitlement point of view, the problem is just as bad if not worse because environmental entitlements, even when they are high security, suffer the same effects. All the existing environmental entitlements that are sitting there as accounting entries, if you like, in Lake Eildon and other lakes are about to get zero allocations.

Coming back to Lake Elizabeth, it is interesting to note that the outfalls that were historically occurring into Lake Elizabeth had started to be withdrawn by Goulburn-Murray Water even before the NVIRP arrived. In a number of places in this document the NVIRP proponent notes that the impact from reduced channel outfalls as a result of its project is less because Goulburn-Murray Water has already been quietly withdrawing that water. That really got me going, so I invited Goulburn-Murray Water to our Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration inquiry and put to it that for a number of years now it has been doing projects similar to NVIRP but not as large. I asked if it had ever sought environmental approval from the federal minister. 'Absolutely', it said, but when it went away and checked, it turned out it had not.

It turned out it had written to the federal environment minister saying, 'This is what we are intending to do', and he said, 'Well, if you do not do a formal referral, it is your risk. It is your risk that your project could be found to have a significant impact on matters of national environmental significance and therefore you would be in trouble'.

I then went away and did an FOI request on this so-called strategic measurement program that Goulburn-Murray Water had been running prior to NVIRP coming in and introducing its program. It was able to give me details of the water that it had been measuring since 2006-07 for dozens of different outfalls. In some cases we were able to match those outfalls to wetlands, particularly those with high environmental values. In other cases they go into rivers and may form part of the environmental flow of rivers. In yet other cases it is not clear where they go.

When you tot it up, it turns out that 14 gigalitres of water was going out of the system when Goulburn-Murray Water first started monitoring these outfalls. Through monitoring and other activities that Goulburn-Murray Water has done, it has got that down to 5 gigalitres. When it added more monitoring in another set of outfalls, it found 17 gigalitres going out of an outfall; as I said, it has reduced that down to 5 gigalitres.

Something like 11 gigalitres of water has already been withdrawn from wetlands, rivers and possibly other parts of the environment without federal environmental approval. It was a precursor. It was a pilot project to this NVIRP project, if you like, and it was done on the sly. We have to remember when we are talking numbers like this that this is 11 gigalitres of actual water. Depending on which system it was in, if that system at that time was on 50 per cent allocation, it could have been double that amount in terms of allocations if we are trying to compare that to 75 gigalitres.

No Federal Environment approval but trying to operate anyhow

I think it is a deadly serious issue to have a government entity operating out there without federal environmental approval and just thinking it can do things on the quiet. It is only because this NVIRP project, which is much bigger in scale, came along that Goulburn-Murray Water started to get touchy about federal environmental matters.

However, as I said, the federal minister has not yet received a referral for this project. Nonetheless the government wants the Greens to pre-approve the water. It will do the EES later. It will not even be a state EES; the government will just measure it as it goes and provide some water for those wetlands -- in fact, the government will not even assess environmental values right now.

No structure appears to be in place to meet Min for Planning's conditions

The government could have, through its lead speaker, jumped up and said it is doing a number of things that the Minister for Planning required it to do. I quote from his conditions:

“Before operation of relevant works commences, NVIRP must prepare a framework for protection of aquatic and riparian ecological values through management of water allocations and flows ... having regard to written advice to be sought from the expert review panel ...”

I cannot find any evidence that that panel has been created. It may have been, but its outcomes are not available to us. It is not on the NVIRP website, and I cannot find it anywhere else. The conditions continue:
“... and following consultation with the Minister for Environment and Climate Change.”

The minister was sitting in the chamber a minute ago, but I did not hear him speak on this matter.

The following condition is the kind of thing that might start to encourage us that there is an environmental outcome here. It requires:
“A statement of environmental commitments or performance requirements in relation to managing the ecological consequences of hydrological changes arising from implementation of NVIRP, including to avoid any contribution to diminishing ecological values in waterways and wetlands. This statement is to describe arrangements for the sourcing, allocation and management of water required to mitigate the project's potential ecological impacts.”

That is the statement I would like to see, but I do not think it is there. If it were, we would be specifically embodying its outcomes in this bulk entitlement.

Elsewhere in the bulk entitlement there are some very specific provisions relating to matters that we are not contesting here today. One says that savings from the Wimmera-Mallee pipeline will be allocated to Little Lake Boort via the Waranga Western Channel up to a total of 300 megalitres during May to September inclusive every year. That is a very specific entitlement that will pass today because it is not part of what we are attempting to disallow and it is designed to protect Little Lake Boort. We have no such guarantee for Lake Elizabeth.

Those who are interested in Lake Elizabeth might be aware that it was originally the home of a particular fish which is a favourite fish of Mr Drum's -- the Murray hardyhead. This fish became locally extinct in Lake Elizabeth a couple of years ago, around about the same time that Goulburn-Murray Water was withdrawing water. It continues to withdraw this water, and this project proposes to continue this without the guarantee of putting water back.

From thousands of wetlands to only 23 and these are not even guaranteed

We could go through every one of these high-value wetlands -- these 23 priority wetlands, as they call them -- but

we have to be aware that this assessment itself started with thousands of wetlands across the whole Goulburn-Murray area. The government then rejected most of them for further study by saying, 'We will just look at the high-value wetlands', and reduced the number to under 100, and then it ditched a bunch of others and said, 'There are really only 23 that are affected in this way, so what we will do is come up with these environmental watering plans afterwards'.

Government members have come in here and asked, 'Don't you know we are giving 75 gigalitres to the environment?'. No, I do not know. This bulk entitlement reads more like a press release. It simply gives out shares -- 75 gigalitres to Melbourne, 75 gigalitres to the environment and 75 gigalitres to irrigators -- and says, 'Trust us. We will do the right thing' ex post facto.

Every reason to distrust this government on water

If you were going to trust the government on this, you would go back to an earlier issue -- Ms Broad has quite a history on this -- and that is the Snowy. Does Ms Broad remember that promise? It could not have been a more high-profile exercise. The promise was that 21 per cent of the Snowy River's flow would be restored. The then Premiers of New South Wales and Victoria, Bob Carr and Steve Bracks, went up to the headwaters, had their photo taken, jumped over the river, opened up the sluice gates -- even the Man from Snowy River was there. It could not have been a higher profile exercise. The promise was that 21 per cent of the Snowy River's flow would be restored. The experts' request was for 28 per cent as a minimum -- as usual, you get even less than what the experts say is a minimum. What are we getting today? A few per cent. You have to scratch your head. How can an exercise like that, which attracted so much fanfare, deliver so little 10 years later? Think of the Snowy when you hear that claim about 75 gigalitres, because this measure will be about as effective.

Coalition needs to stop treating this as a political football: the issues are momentous

There are issues about the calculation methods and how the savings are derived. Again it is all ex post facto. It is not clear up to this point whether the Minister for Water himself has actually complied with the conditions for approval of the Minister for Planning, let alone the conditions that the federal government might have. It is certainly not clear to me what alternative the coalition is offering. It could have announced another policy. It could have given someone an exclusive last night, and then this morning we would be coming in here and saying, 'This is how the coalition will have the bulk entitlement so as to make future provision for water coming down the north-south pipeline'. According to Ms Broad, the Leader of the Opposition in the other place, Mr Baillieu, said, 'In a crisis, we look at all options'. It would be possible to write this bulk entitlement to include triggers whereby the water could be used in a particular crisis, but we do not have any details about this.

It is not good enough in the run-up to an election to simply treat this issue as a political football with the two alternative governments trying to wedge each other, then getting wedged and then trying to wedge again, because I have seen those exercises before. The people who get wedged are the people in the wider community -- and the environment, but the environment rarely has its voice.

What is being debated here is not the whole story. It will not solve the problem. Neither option offers any warranty to the environment or, for that matter, the livelihoods of people in towns and communities who depend on water. Neither option guarantees a future for the Goulburn Valley nor offers hope or a way forward

For that reason the Greens will support the disallowance of particular sections of the bulk entitlement. Members of the coalition were well aware that the Greens would have moved this motion if coalition members had not. However, neither that outcome nor what the government is offering is satisfactory; neither option offers any warranty to the environment or, for that matter, the livelihoods of people in towns and communities who depend on water. Neither option guarantees a future for the Goulburn Valley nor offers hope or a way forward, even in the sense that it will be a difficult crisis but we have a direction for a way through. I get the sense this issue is not over.

North-South pipeline is more a political project than a hydrological one

The government had the option to sit down with the Greens and go through these issues. We have requested information through freedom of information, we have asked questions without notice, we have raised matters in the media, we have written to federal minister Peter Garrett, and we have been actively engaged in this issue. But because it is a politically derived project, there was never any sense that anything was going to stop it; it was just bound to keep going.

Government members have made it quite easy in some ways for the coalition -- and maybe for the Greens, and for Mr Kavanagh; I do not know -- because they have already said,

Government: 'We will simply issue a section 51 licence from another section of the Water Act'. There is no doubt that that explains why government members are not the least bit interested in addressing our concerns. It is because they think they can get out of it through another legal avenue.

However, it is interesting that in that section of the act the matters the minister must consider before issuing the licence are the same matters that must be considered before gazetting a bulk entitlement.

Maybe we won't get answers until downstream the project lands itself in court

Licences issued under that section are subject to appeal, so it will be interesting to see if the exact matters we have argued through the legislative process end up being argued in a court somewhere, where perhaps some of the facts we have been so desperately trying to expose can for once be tested. Perhaps the people in the community can be offered not just an environmental and social future but some answers to the questions they have been so regularly and constantly asking.

Source: Bulk water entitlements disallowed
Bulk Entitlements lack detail, provide no environmental warranty

Greens, Greg Barber MLC