Speech to Rice Growers’ Association Conference 2022, Mulwala

MDBA

Speech to the Rice Growers Association Conference 2022, Mulwala NSW

Thanks very much Rob (Massina) it is a great pleasure to be here.

Rob and I have known each other a long time. I said to him mate can you just warm the crowd up because rice is interesting, but water is really interesting.

Look, I’d like to start by acknowledging the Traditional Owners on the lands we are meeting today – Bangerang people – pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging.

Importantly also I’d like to acknowledge and pay my respect to the Traditional Owners, the Nations right across the of the Murray-Darling Basin, there’s about 40 First Nations across the Murray-Darling Basin and these folk have a very deep cultural, social, environmental, and economic connection to their land and water.

As Rob said, it is my very first outing as CEO, so I do want to acknowledge Rob and Graeme for giving me the opportunity to be here.

Look, I’m not telling you anything to say that water is life and it’s absolutely vital and you know it’s vital to the community, it’s vital to the environment, it’s vital to First Nations, it’s vital to industry, and I joined the MDBA after almost 30 years in public advocacy roles, mostly in agriculture, I played for a bit in oil and gas which is pretty dull and boring, but you know, I joined the MDBA because I think what we do is critically important and I do genuinely think that we can make a difference.

The reality is, love us, or hate us – the MDBA is the one organisation that takes a holistic view of the Basin’s water resources.

Now something that most people don’t realise is that the guiderails we have are actually pretty tight. So, in addition to running the river Murray on behalf of Basin states, it’s our job to hold governments accountable for their commitments to the Basin Plan and importantly also to help them and you plan for the future.

And it’s become very clear to me in my short 5 weeks here that the MDBA really are the guardians or the advocates if you like, for the rivers.

Now we shouldn’t underestimate just how extraordinary the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is. I mean anyone who can get 6 governments to agree on anything, it’s a pretty outstanding effort.

And I think it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the Basin Plan is a political compact. And that brings a certain tone, and it brings a certain tenor to that plan.

And as a science-based organisation and an evidence-driven organisation, it’s our job to provide high quality advice to government but at the end of the day, and it’s really important to be clear, it is up to governments to decide and to act.

As Rob mentioned, I’m 5 weeks in and what I’ve been trying to do is really get out and about and listen and hear firsthand from a whole of people who depend on a healthy river system.

It’s essential that we engage with communities, to hear firsthand what their concerns are. Importantly also what the solutions are and to help try and improve the understanding of what we the MDBA can do, and indeed at times what we can’t do.

And this week I have been in Leeton, Griffith, Coleambally and Berrigan.

A couple of weeks ago I travelled the mid and lower Darling with our chair Sir Angus Houston. The week before that I travelled with the Minister out to Hay, Mildura and Loxton.

Next week I’m in Goondiwindi and then I’m down across to South Australia. I think some bloke wrote a song about that, but there you go.

But look, there’s a lot to see and a lot of people to meet. And no one is short of views or opinions and that’s great, that’s as it should be.

What I have noticed so far is people are most passionate about their part of the river and I get that.

I’m quickly learning that no matter where you are on the river, there is a view that ever bugger upstream is stealing it and every bugger downstream is wasting it.

But if I can be honest, that’s a pretty unhelpful parochial view. Because it’s actually far more important that we step back, and we start to take a whole of Basin view.

It’s really about solutions. My team is already sick of me banging on about what the solution we are trying to deliver. We’ve all got problems. We’ve got problems in a wide range of areas but how we individually and collectively bring forward solutions and consider perspectives other than our own? Because that’s the only way we are going to crack this nut.

Right now, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is at a really critical point in its implementation.

It’s a good plan and it’s working.

Like my predecessor Phil Glyde said, another UNE alumni, he said, look mate I have met plenty of people who didn’t like the Plan, but I haven’t met anyone who wanted to go back to the way things were before the plan and I think that’s pretty astute.

Right now, governments and communities, we’re in the last mile of a really long and a really tough marathon, and the last mile is always harder than the first. But we have got to work together and have got to finish what we started 10 years ago.

Because it’s only then will we all see the full suite of outcomes envisaged 10 years ago and it’s only then that we will be in a position to work out how to go forward with the Murray Darling Basin Plan over the next 10 years and beyond.

Put simply, don’t start what you can’t finish.

Today, I’d like to talk a little bit about the MDBA’s assessment of the progress of the Basin Plan and outline some of the work we’ve got underway ahead of the Basin Plan Review in 2026.

Every 6 months we release a Basin Plan Report Card. It is our transparent assessment of the Basin Plan’s progress. And this is the 8th in the series that was released today.

As I mentioned it’s pretty remarkable where we have come from and what’s been achieved.

98 percent of the water recovery, known as bridging the gap, has been delivered -just 2 percent left.

Of course, some key water saving projects remain far from done and we have to make sure we get those done because if we don’t there are real risks to future water security.

And I know, and have been told in no uncertain terms in my travels around the country, that a lot of people have done a lot of heavy lifting and that’s been really important, and no more so than this area.

The NSW Murrumbidgee, 442 gigalitres has been recovered, in the NSW Murray, 293, across the river the Victorian Murray 393 gigalitres.

In your part of the world, water is used in a range of ways to help improve the environment, significant wetlands including RAMSAR listed Fivebough which I visited the other day, the mid-Murrumbidgee Wetlands, and the Lowbidgee Floodplain.

And of course, down the road from here you’ve got the Gunbower, Koondrook-Perricoota, Guttrum and Benwell Forests and they were watered as recently as last October, and Gunbower is getting another good drink right now thanks to our e-water holders in Victoria.

It’s important to remember that water is needed not only in wet times but in dry times too.

In the dry times, water for the environment provides a refuge for birds, native fish and water-dependent trees and vegetation.

In the latest drought, which was tragic for many, many people, the only water connecting the Murray River to the sea was water for the environment. In the north, water for the environment made sure that some rivers still stayed connected and provided refuge for fish and other wildlife.

In wet times like what we are experiencing now, water for the environment can extend natural flows – and provide opportunities for birds to finish breeding, when otherwise flows might drop away.

Much has been achieved – but of course, there is still a lot to do.

I’ll say it again – we are now in the last miles of a long, hard race and we have to stick at it, and we need to finish that marathon.

In line with the MDBA’s commitment to transparency, the Report Card gives a clear picture of what we see as five key elements of the Basin Plan.

In addition to water recovery, we talk about:

  • Water resource plans
  • Sustainable diversion limit (SDL) Adjustment Mechanism – supply, constraints and efficiency measures
  • Northern Basin initiatives
  • Environmental water delivery

Now it would surprise no one that most concerning right now is New South Wales’s slow progress to complete their water resource plans and in the latest report card they have moved from at risk of delay, to high risk.

Because in all other states those plans are in place and operational.

The lions’ share of water in Basin is used in New South Wales, and without accredited WRPs it means NSW is working outside of the Basin’s compliance framework.

Importantly we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that having those plans in place helps builds trust and confidence among water users and importantly between states as well.

Certainly, we support the Inspector-General of Water Compliance’s position on water resource plans – he can’t do his job without these plans in place.

It is good there has been progress over the last few months and as of today 3 plans are formally with us for assessment, and a further 4 in the pre-assessment which is great.

We are very keen to get it done and we want to get it done as quickly as we can. They are very complex tasks, and our assessment has be thorough and has to be diligent and has to be consistent and in short it will take what it will take.

The SDL Adjustment Mechanism water saving projects are also slipping well behind.

These projects, known as SDLAM, are important to irrigation dependent industries like yours here because they will keep 605 gigalitres of water in the consumptive pool.

They are also offer important flexibility for river operators in how they manage the system, particularly as things start to dry out and in a drying climate.

For example, Victorian Government great news that their Victorian Murray Floodplain restoration projects are progressing well. That includes infrastructure works to get water out onto floodplains and wetlands between Gunbower and the SA border.

But there is still work to do on several projects. With less than 2 years before their deadline, there are 7 out of 36 projects that are classified as highly unlikely to be delivered by 30 June 2024.

One of these, of course is the Yanco project. We’re looking forward to seeing a revised project plan from NSW which reflects the feedback from the community.

Those SDLAM projects are very, very important because it’s about how do we manage the rivers resources more efficiency, how do we allow water to connect with its floodplain and move through the system more freely. And it’s an important part of delivering the Basin Plan’s benefits beyond my lifetime and maybe beyond yours as well.

Of course, there’s been a lot of chat of late about what’s people are loosely referred to as ‘the 450’. That’s 450 gigalitres of water through efficiency measures. And that has remained stubbornly on red. 2 gigalitres has been delivered, with a further 22 gigalitres contracted for delivery. But unfortunately, 24 is not 450!

The Federal Minister Tanya Plibersek has confirmed the 450 remains a target. It’s looking difficult to meet and she has said that all options are on the table.

Like the Minister, we’re really passionate about seeing the full outcomes of the Plan and how we can work together with all of you to deliver that plan for the benefit of all Australians.

The work to achieve the 450 target and the SDLAM projects, that work has to be done and through that, and combined with what’s been achieved to date, we really will see a step change in the health of the Basin.

If those SDLAM projects are not delivered by (June) 2024, we’re required under legislation to conduct the SDLAM Reconciliation, which may lead to a revision to the adjustment volume.

Our next SDLAM Assurance Report is due out before the end of the year.

Looking forward, as we oversee the roll out of the Basin Plan, we need to look ahead.

The Basin Plan will be reviewed in 2026.

And that’s an important milestone. It’s a really important opportunity to review the Basin Plan’s settings. It is our vehicle to recommend if there needs to be change and amendments made, to government.

Of course, I make the point, it is ultimately governments who own the plan and it is ultimately governments who will decide whether or not to make changes to the Plan. Our job to provide advice to governments and advise them on what we think the best course of action is.

Importantly we are not waiting till we get to 2026 to talk to communities and different stakeholder groups, and to gather the science and knowledge to inform the review.

I think we learnt that very clearly from the first Basin Plan. We will engage early and often and importantly we will share what we learn along the way. We need to ground truth the new science with the lived experience.

We have four themes that are going to guide the Review. It’s really about asking 4 questions focused on outcomes.

1. How can the Basin Plan be improved to address future challenges, including climate change?

2. How could the Basin Plan framework be simplified?

3. How do we get the best outcomes for social, cultural, environmental and economic values?

4. How can the Basin Plan be improved to recognise importance of First Nation’s values in water management and enhance their involvement in all of that?

So, between now and 2026, governments are investing in science to inform the Review and that starts with what we call the Murray-Darling Basin Outlook.

The Outlook will be released in about 18 months’ time and that will be an insight into what life look like in the Basin in 2050 under current settings.

It will look at the health of the Basin’s water resources and ecosystems, First Nations priorities, agriculture, tourism and communities.

Our job is to partner with the best and brightest to prepare the Outlook and we will share what we learn along the way. That will be integral into flowing into the Review.

Really important elements like the integrated river modelling uplift, the Murray-Darling Water and Environment Research Program, Basin Condition Monitoring Program as well the government’s election commitments that have been made by the new government including the Sustainable Rivers Audit, the MDB Sustainable Yields and Climate Impacts on RAMSAR Wetlands. All those things have to be considered.

In 2025 we will do the Evaluation of the Basin Plan. Again, that’s really important as we take stock of how that’s been implemented and how we’ve done. That’s really around what’s working, what’s not and what we can do different.

The last evaluation was done in 2020, at the mid-way point of the Plan and we found then that the Plan is having a significant and positive impact on the environment and communities, but it on its own, it’s not enough.

Governments need to also implement a range of additional, practical measures to achieve a healthy, resilient Basin. Good to see some of these have been implemented like the First Nations rangers’ program and the northern Basin toolkit projects.

But, back in 2020 it was too early to delve into all the implementation issues, and we needed more time to allow the plan to be delivered.

That’s why this Evaluation that will come in 2025 is really important.

Again, what went wrong, what went well and what we’ve learnt, and importantly what needs to change.

And I think it’s really important, and this is a message I really want to bring home to you – we’ve got to be honest with ourselves in terms of how we have done, and we have got to be honest with all of you – the people who depend on healthy rivers and a healthy Basin.

We have to take the evidence, we have to look at the science – what we know now, what we knew then – and what can be attributed to the Basin Plan.

And then all of that gets wound up and feeds into the Basin Plan Review in 2026 and that is how we advise government on what settings the Basin Plan needs as we go forward.

It’s about how we make the Basin Plan better for the future.

I know most of you are probably sitting there rolling your eyes going geez, more reform, and look, I get it, we get it, and I know there’s an ongoing need to help communities to adapt and to do deal with that frustration.

But the review has to happen. It’s legislated, and we have a legal obligation but importantly we have a moral obligation to do it.

Certainly, we want your input, we want your contribution and we’re not going to sit around and wait until the end to get that.

Central to that is then has to be how do we deal with climate change.

We know much more about climate than we did 10 years ago when the first Plan came into force.

CSIRO is saying by 2050-60 we could see a 10% reduction in rainfall leading to a 30% reduction in flows into the Basin.

It means the Basin is likely to be warmer, it’ll be drier and there’ll be more frequent droughts and more frequent severe weather events.

It goes without saying your lived experience I’m sure already mirrors that emerging reality.

Three years ago, we were in the throes of the worst drought on record for some parts of the Basin and now we are seeing the opposite. From droughts, to fires, to flooding rains.

It really is quite astonishing how quickly things can turn. But we know also that things will turn again.

Importantly the difference between the drought we have just come out and the Millennium Drought was that there was water set aside for the environment and it kept rivers connected, fed the mighty river redgums and provided refuge, and those important things the environment needs to survive.

We have got to work together because climate change will affect every aspect of what we do here in the Basin.

No single individual and no single group can solve that challenge, so we’ve got to work together.

And we have got to work collaboratively together, and we’ve got to sit down and make sure we’ve got the right people having the right conversations in the right rooms together.

We have to listen and take on board perspectives and we’ve got to listen to lived experiences.

Importantly we have got to trust the science and we have to use that to guide our decision making.

Just to finish up, it’s a real pleasure to be here and I’m under no illusion. I’ve spent 30 years trying to deal with intractable problems and I’m under no illusion there’s a lot of hard work ahead, but I want to work with you.

We need to plan for our increasingly variable climate, but we also need to work hard to get through the unfinished business of the Basin Plan.

We have got to bring people, communities, along with us, on this journey and the journey we are about to undertake.

It’s going to be hard and there are going to be times when we will be times when we get frustrated, but we have got to stick at it, and we have got to work together. That’s how it will be delivered with governments, working with communities to bring everyone along together.

That’s how we’ll get the step-change needed, that’s how we’ll get sustainable healthy river system, wetlands and floodplains, farm businesses, farm communities, First Nations People, all these groups that rightly expect and demand, a healthy river system.

So, we’ve got an opportunity to work together to make it better, I look forward to that. I really, really do.

It’s a great pleasure to take on this role, and a great pleasure to be here today. It’s a great privilege to be here today and so I thank you Rob and Graeme for having me and I look forward to working with you all. Thanks a lot.

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