Caught in the Act

‘I’ve told you before not to drink your juice that quickly! Juice is expensive, Paul—if you’re going to drink that quickly, you can have a glass of water.’

The parental incantation above has long reverberated around the nation. What it demonstrates is not that kids guzzle their juice, but that despite living on the planet’s second driest continent, we continue to undervalue and fundamentally disrespect its water resources.

In particular, the environmental values of rivers and wetlands receive scant attention compared to consumptive uses of water. In Victoria, which has the mainland’s greatest density of rivers and streams, 78 per cent of the state’s total river length is in moderate, poor or very poor condition. Put another way, 44 per cent of river basins have less than ten per cent of river length in good or excellent condition.

Victoria’s legislative framework is simply not geared to ensuring that rivers remain healthy. It is the only state—except the Northern Territory—that does not assign the environment a baseline volume of water sufficient to sustain ecosystem values. Instead, the environment is forced to compete with other users for entitlements to water. Indeed, Victoria’s Water Act 1989 (Vic) prioritises water for domestic, stock and irrigation uses above that for the environment.

Even where the environment does hold an entitlement to water, there is no guarantee that it will receive its share. A telling example is that of the Kerang Lakes—a group of wetlands on the Murray in north-west Victoria that are listed under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Significance.

The Kerang Lakes has the state’s only self-contained environmental allocation. But despite this, the area’s water entitlement, first issued in 1987, was not used again until 1995. Since that time, 10,000ML or more of the area’s annual 27,600ML allocation has been sold on the temporary water market three times. Justifications for the sales have included limited need for the water owing to natural ecological cycles. But service delivery costs facilitated by the Act were at least as relevant. In 2001–02 they totalled an enormous $122,647—a figure well beyond the environment’s capital resources.

The current legislative arrangement is clearly not a satisfactory one. The Act will need to be reformed to place a higher emphasis on protecting, and where possible restoring, in-stream values of water. How this is to occur is a huge problem, and continues to be the subject of conjecture.

First, the Act needs to guarantee the environment a baseline level of flows sufficient to maintain aquatic ecosystems. Second, consumption needs to become more ecologically accountable. Domestic and stock water is available free of charge to certain landholders for uses including cattle watering.

A person has a right to take water, free of charge, for domestic and stock use where that person has access to a watercourse by public road or reserve, where a watercourse flows through or adjacent to the landholder’s property, where the landholder’s property is in an irrigation district, or where, in the case of a groundwater bore, that person occupies the land on which the bore is located.

The current venerable status of domestic and stock water might need to be altered to one more reflective of economic and environmental realities. The Murray-Darling Basin Commission’s Education Centre has estimated that whereas, on average, fruit, vegetables and dairy products all require 0.50ML or less of water to make a $100 profit, non-dairy pasture requires 2.75ML.

As far as irrigation water is concerned, accountability might mean guaranteeing the environment a percentage of any sales water. Sales water is water made available for purchase once irrigators’ annual entitlements have been met. Given irrigation’s large consumption of water—77 per cent of the state’s total—and the already over-extracted state of the vast majority of the state’s rivers, it is inequitable that the environment should suffer further violation.

Third, the Act should protect currently existing environmental water. Charging the environment for its own water is patently improper, especially in the context of internationally-recognised wetlands, and given that the environment itself receives no payment when it is used to transport water for consumptive use. The provision of the Act that allows for this requires repeal.

These suggestions are just a taste of the improvements that could be made to the Act. Without healthy rivers, any exploitative use of water is robbing Peter to pay Paul. As the engine driving agricultural and industrial production, river health acts as a fixed limitation on societal development. To that end, improving river health is an important goal economically as well as environmentally. All that is needed is the injection of political will. 

Paul Martin is an Arts/Law student at the University of Melbourne who last year completed an Internship with Environment Victoria investigating reform of the Water Act 1989 (Vic) to improve the protection and restoration of Victoria’s rivers and aquatic ecosystems.

 

 

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