Mon 02/04/2012 Political Reporter Ken McGregor, Adelaide Advertiser
TWO new reports released today say the Murray-Darling Basin Authority's draft plan is illegal, and would not release enough water to protect the river in South Australia.
Legal advice commissioned by environment groups says the plan contravenes the federal Water Act because it prioritises social and economic impacts instead of the river's long-term health.
It also highlights the authority's decision to double groundwater use and the plan's alleged failure to consider the impacts on downstream users, claiming these are illegal acts which would be overturned by a court if they were challenged.
While any challenge would only be used as a last resort, a group of key environmental groups, including the Wilderness Society and the Conservation Council of South Australia, are scathing of the authority's refusal to commit to crucial reforms to fix legal aspects of the plan during failed talks late last week.
The 23-page report, by the Victorian-based Environment Defenders Office, lists nine key points which it says makes the draft plan illegal under the Water Act 2007.
The advice, commissioned by 10 peak groups, would also boost Premier Jay Weatherill's case if he proceeds with his threat to launch a High Court challenge.
He has threatened to challenge if the final plan does not deliver more environmental water or force upstream states shoulder their share of the burden.
Legal issues highlighted in the report include:
THE plan prioritises social and economic considerations and operational constraints above a sustainable extraction level.
THE authority's decision to increase groundwater extraction by more than double current amounts does not align with the Act's precautionary principle.
THE plan does not consider the impacts if upstream states are allowed to take their entire credit in one year and dramatically reduce available water for downstream users and ecosystems in low-flow years.
It states that the plan, which recommends returning 2750 gigalitres of water to the system, could be struck out if presented to Parliament later this year because of illegalities in its current form. This has prompted fears the already-delayed reforms will take even more time to be implemented.
The legal advice has prompted the Wilderness Society to label the plan a train wreck. We are calling on (federal Water Minister) Tony Burke to step in and give a clear direction to the MDBA, SA campaign manager Peter Owen said.
The stakes could not be higher for SA. Mr Owen said the authority was playing Russian roulette with the river's health by falling short of the independent CSIRO's recommendations that 4000GL-7000GL needed to be restored.
Friends of the Earth Murray-Darling campaigner Jonathan La Nauze said: After meeting with the MDBA last week, we formed the opinion that they are not prepared to fix the serious problems … Instead, they are persevering with a flawed process, incomplete data and limited modelling.
Mr Burke would not comment on the call for him to intervene.
Also today, a new scientific analysis was released showing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan would not return the system to a sustainable level of health.
The State Government says the Goyder Institute for Water Research has reviewed the government's analysis of the modelling and found the proposed 2750GL recovery would not improve conditions enough for South Australia to withstand droughts.
As the state at the end of the Murray-Darling Basin, South Australia has the most to lose if we don't get the plan right, Premier Jay Weatherill said in a statement.
On the basis of this report, the MDBA's plan does not even provide a good place to start.
The science shows that less than half of the MDBA's own environmental requirements for the internationally-significant riverland-Chowilla floodplain would be achieved.
The Government says the findings show that under the draft plan:
MIDDLE and high elevation areas of the floodplains would receive little or not additional water and declining vegetation health is likely to occur.
SALT will accumulate in the lower Murray region during drier periods as a result of insufficient salt export through the Murray mouth.
EXTREME low water levels and salinities may still occur in the Lower Lakes and Coorong during extended droughts.