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Waters muddied in quest for Murray River solution

''S o many of the big issues facing society are science intensive,''the late Professor Peter Cullen told a gathering of scientists in Alaska, in a keynote speech that has come to be regarded as ''a Cullen classic''.

It was called ''Science and Politics - Speaking Truth to Power'', and eloquently nails the dilemma scientists face when dealing with the party values and self-interest (''vote for me next election'') of politics.

Scientists seek the truth and often deliberately ''take contrary views to test the current orthodoxy'', he explained. Good scientists also operate on the premise that, despite seeking truth, they can never be confident they'd found it -''a better or more powerful explanation may be just around the corner.''

But politics is driven by a ''Darwinian battle for supremacy'' at the ballot box. Science is focused on finding the best solution, and keeping an open mind. In politics, policy is about negotiating a compromise that will protect the government's position.

Many politicians are elected ''because of the support of particular interest groups, and they will commonly seek to advance those interests'' when forming policy, Cullen told his Alaskan audience.

The question begging to be asked, in the wake of this week's launch of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority's contentious water allocation plan, is what would Cullen make of the theatre of controversy surrounding the event? And what would be his solution as a way forward?


Cullen dominated Australia's water policy debate in the decades prior to his death in March 2008, and was a strong advocate for the health of river systems. And while didn't suffer fools gladly, he never used his formidable expertise to pull rank in discussions. ''Peter built his career in science, but he learned that simply understanding and appreciating nature will not save it,'' wrote former federal policy adviser and Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists convenor Peter Cosier in his foreword to This Land Our Water, a recently published collection of Cullen's papers. ''What makes Peter Cullen a man of out times is that he stood up - at great personal cost - to those vested interests intent on destroying everything he valued.''

Among the papers in that collection is one Cullen wrote for the scientific journal Freshwater Biology, exploring ''the turbulent boundary'' between water science and water management. In that paper, Cullen wryly observes water managers ''often see scientists as people you call when you have a problem that does not respond to their standard recipes.'' He dissects ''the culture of management'' in Australia's public sector, arguing it is a culture in which science is chiefly valued as a handy (and winning) turf war weapon in policy conflicts.

It's a paper that's so powerfully pertinent to the current furore over the draft Basin plan that its publication date comes as a shock. Cullen wrote it just over 20 years ago.

Australian National University environmental historian Daniel Connell talked at length with Cullen during several years spent researching and writing his thesis (now published as a book) Water Politics in the Murray-Darling Basin. He laughs when asked what Cullen might have thought of the operatic drama that has dogged the Federal Government's attempts to launch a new water management plan for Australia's biggest food-producing region.

''I think he'd be highly amused, but also probably appalled by some aspects of how this is being handled,'' he says.

''We now have a situation where no one is happy with the draft plan, so the Minister can't be accused of favouring any interests.''

Launching the plan this week, Murray Darling Basin Authority chair Craig Knowles appealed to irrigators and environmentalists ''not to become fixated on a number'' - a reference to the estimate of environmental flows to be returned to the region's river systems to restore ecological health. But peak farm groups, the Australian Greens, Basin state Premiers, environmental scientists and conservation groups have all attacked the estimate of 2750 gigalitres a year. The Australian Greens water spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young has dismissed the plan as ''a sell-out'' that will not deliver enough water back into the system to keep it sustainable. Unless the plan is substantially changed, the Greens will not support it in the Senate.

One of Australia's leading environmental scientists, University of NSW freshwater ecologist Professor Richard Kingsford, says returning more water to the Basin's river systems is critical. He has also voiced concerns at comments by Federal Water Minister Tony Burke that ''physical constraints'' such as bridges and narrow channels are restricting the amount of water than can be returned to rivers because the Government could face potential legal action if floods occurred.

''These are minor infrastructure problems that I would have thought could be easily resolved. They have to be resolved if we are going to meet the required environmental targets,'' he says.

Kingsford says the draft plan does nor adequately address the potential impacts of climate change, and argues much of the modelling ''appears to be based on past climate records rather than looking to future implications of a drying climate across the Basin''.

The proposed cuts to both surface and groundwater have not been finalised and there will be several further reviews and audits of the plan, with the cuts due to be implemented in 2019. All sides of the political debate have pointed out that this means a seven-year delay, with the Federal Government relying on targeted water buybacks and infrastructure efficiencies to return water to the environment during that period.

Just over a year ago, there were angry protests in Basin towns over the preliminary guide to the draft basin plan. Publication had been delayed until after the 2010 federal election. It was subsequently launched in Canberra, but without accompanying scientific or economic data to show how proposed water cuts of up to 45per cent for some regions had been calculated. Where was the hydrological modelling?

When boxes of the guide were burned in Yoogali Centre car park outside a packed community meeting (around 6000 people attended) in the NSW Riverina town of Griffith, Federal Regional Affairs Minister Simon Crean hastily announced a parliamentary inquiry, chaired by NSW rural Independent MP Tony Windsor, into potential social impacts of the proposed water cuts. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority's chairman, Mike Taylor subsequently resigned, issuing a statement saying ''governance issues'' related to the Water Act were hampering the Authority's capacity to deliver a Basin water plan. That has sparked debate over whether the Act should be substantially revised or even challenged before the High Court.

The guide ruled out cuts above 4000 gigalitres a year as ''beyond the range of acceptable reductions,'' but proposed cuts of up to 43per cent for the Murrumbidgee catchment. Those figures have been revised, and the draft plan is proposing a cut of 2750GL a year across the Basin's 23 river catchments. The Murrumbidgee catchment - which includes Griffith, Wagga Wagga and Canberra - will take one of the biggest water cuts (13per cent), with a minimum reduction of 320GL a year. But this cut is likely to be much higher, with the Murrumbidgee expected to provide a significant contribution to a further 971GL cut as a ''shared contribution' for the Basin's southern catchments. The ACT is exempt from water cuts, but must prepare a detailed water plan, including environmental water use targets.

Connell argues much of the controversy surrounding the launch of both documents is due to flaws in the Federal Water Act, drafted to address perceived water allocation issues within the Murray-Darling Basin. The Act was formulated by former Howard government water minister Malcolm Turnbull and passed into law in 2007 by the Rudd government in the weeks following the federal election.

Earlier this year Harvard University environmental engineer and World Bank water policy advisor Professor John Briscoe told a Senate inquiry the Water Act ''would not and could not work''. Professor Briscoe told the inquiry the Act was, in his view, a power grab devised by ''opportunistic politicians''. It had been ''hatched in a very short time with very little consultation with any of Australia's great water professionals or its innovative farmers.'' ''In the eyes of the architects of the Water Act it was necessary to take power away from those who had made a mess of things - the states and farmers - and put it in the hands of the enlightened in Canberra,''he said. A major challenge lay in dealing with Australia's constitution, which gave the five basin - Queensland, NSW, Victoria, South Australia and the ACT - powers over water management and underpinned a state agreement process ''which had been the institutional bedrock'' of the former MDB Commission. The Authority, which replaced the Commission, was established under the Water Act. ''Because constitutional amendments are not simple, and definitely cannot be done over a weekend before an election, the authors of the Water Act had to find legal cover for usurping state powers,''Professor Briscoe said.

''An alert and enterprising environmental lawyer found the fig leaf, which was the [international] Ramsar Convention, which the Commonwealth government had signed, committing itself to protecting wetlands which are critical for migratory birds. To avoid a constitutional crisis, the Commonwealth had to build the Water Act around this fig leaf. So the Act became an environmental act,which was all it really could be, since it was in the name of the Commonwealth's obligations to an obscure environmental convention that it was taking power from the states. And so the fundaments of the Act were born - an environmental act in which Canberra would tell states and communities and farmers what to do.''

Turnbull saw matters differently, writing in his blog that a federal Water Act was needed to address ''a massive over allocation of water'' in the basin. Much of this overallocation ''was done mindlessly and without any consideration of the environmental consequences,'' he wrote.

''Our water management has been extraordinarily ill informed in years past. It is only in recent times that people have recognised the connection between ground water and surface water ... This is not really a legal issue at all. It is about a contest for water, between people and people, between people and the environment, between the Narran Lakes or the Lower Lakes or a redgum forest and a rice field, a vineyard and a dairy farm.''

Professor Briscoe told the Senate inquiry Australia's politicians had ''lost sight of their farmers' extraordinary achievements in food production during the recent drought.'' Over the past decade, Australia had achieved ''something which no other country could conceivably have managed'' and had coped with a 70per cent reduction in water availability with ''very little aggregate economic impact'' on a large regional economy that was largely dependent on irrigated agriculture . It was an extraordinary achievement that showed ''it is possible - with ingenuity and investment - to adapt to rapid climate change and associated water scarcity'', he said.

Connell also sees the Water Act as ''a grab for power by the Commonwealth'', arguing it was ''introduced during a period of drought by Turnbull as a way of proving the federal government was doing something'' to address public perceptions of a water crisis. The Act's implementation strategy is deeply flawed, he says. ''As a result, we have these big events like the release of the guide, the release of the draft basin plan, all this elaborate process of getting approval, and then a year or two later , we will have to go through the same process again with the various state sub-plans. This process is bound to generate massive confrontations. to keep conflict simmering, and be a very difficult to manage successfully.''

Water reform strategies in the 1980s and '90s might have been ''operating at a much lower scale'' at catchment and community level, but they produced effective results, he says.

''We didn't have these mega-events, but we did have community engagement and a succession of water efficiency reforms that reflected that level of engagement.'' The draft plan outlines ''a very gradualist process'' that appears to be aiming to turn water reform ''into a non-event'', he says.

''It's a non-event in that it's offering no surprises, and promising endless reviews. It's trying to diffuse opposition to change by being boring. The aim is to put a pin in the balloon.''

He suggests the late Peter Cullen's approach to water reform would have been vastly different. ''One of Peter's great qualities was he really enjoyed talking to people. He loved listening to different views, and getting into robust debates about ideas.

''And he was one of those rare people who don't think they have to win every argument and always be proved right. He never thought community meetings were a waste of time, because he didn't see talking to people as hard work. But for most politicians and bureaucrats, it is hard work. '' In that paper published more than 20 years ago, Cullen warns of the dangers that can arise when the political policy process puts ''untrained people in charge of complex ecosystems'' without insisting they seek out expert scientific advice. He wrote, ''When they know so little about the systems they manage that they do not even know what they do not know ... then we have a recipe for disaster.''

Rosslyn Beeby is Science and Environment Reporter for The Canberra Times