16 October 2003

Murray water headache for Howard

While federal Labor endorsed the 1500-gigalitre option months ago, and pledged some money towards buying back water, state Labor governments appear more guarded about a policy bitterly opposed by many irrigators.

Agriculture Minister Warren Truss shied away from the findings, telling Parliament that by focusing on restoring 'icon sites', 'we can achieve worthwhile outcomes without having to destroy rural economies or tear at the heart of the availability of water for irrigators'.

He said the report 'makes the point that good management of the water that goes to the environment is just as important - probably more important - as the volume of water that is actually supplied'.

But Labor's environment spokesman Kelvin Thomson accused Mr Truss of misleading Parliament, citing numerous examples of the report finding that only the return of 1500 gigalitres - which is now Labor policy - delivers the best outcomes for the river.

Introducing the report, Professor Jones ruled out any trade-off. 'It is critical to recognise that non-flow management options cannot be traded off against environmental flow allocations,' he said.

Leading environmental scientist Mike Young warned yesterday that forest plantings, groundwater development and improvements in irrigation efficiency could take another 1700 gigalitres out of the Murray, outweighing the benefit of even the 1500-gigalitre option.

This debate is beginning to make the division of the Thatcher government into 'wet' and 'dry' economics look incredibly prescient. We want the river to run or we don't. If we do, let's find out what's needed and do it. Or does dry economics mean we abandon a basin that produces nearly half our agricultural produce to the market?

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