The benefit of hindsight is a wonderful thing and in the wake of the Murray-Darling 'disaster', water allocations from the Fitzroy River in north-western Australia region are being approached with extreme caution.
Four ministers are juggling the interests of hundreds of traditional owners, environmentalists, farmers and pastoralists - including Gina Rinehart's Hancock Agriculture - to create the most comprehensive plan ever for the Fitzroy River catchment in WA's Kimberley region.
The catchment area feeding the Fitzroy and its tributaries covers 20 per cent of the entire Kimberley and there is a lot at stake - not just the plants, animals and fish that rely on the river, but the economic fortunes of the surrounding Kimberley towns.
While it is a smaller catchment area than the Murray-Darling's, it could support a huge agribusiness sector if more water was drawn from it; but like the Murray-Darling it has major environmental significance to its state and overdrawing could have similarly devastating consequences to those seen in the eastern states.
The plan, expected to be released for public comment by mid-year, will determine tourism opportunities, water allocation for pastoral activity and Indigenous agriculture, as well as set out the boundaries for an extended national park.
The government has ruled out allowing any dams on the river, but agribusiness is still allowed to draw a small amount of water - currently 6 gigalitres (6 billion litres).
Hancock, which owns the Fossil Downs, Nerrima and Liveringa stations, has publicly lamented the amount of water "uselessly" flowing into the ocean. The company wants to dramatically increase the water allowed to be taken from the river to develop the beef industry in the state's north.
But environmentalists worry any excessive allocation could prove devastating for flora and fauna relying on freshwater flows, both in the catchment and around the river mouth
According to the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation on average the river discharges 8000 gigalitres into the ocean every year but depending on the year it can vary wildly. In 1992 just 300 gigalitres flowed through the river and in 2000 25,000 gigalitres was discharged.
The government is ultra-conscious of what is happening in the Murray-Darling and recently ruled out cotton farming, which was partly blamed for the Murray-Darling's issues, in the Kimberley.
That was why, WA Regional Development Minister Alannah Mactiernan said, the government would start small and evolve from there.
"After people see the absolute disaster that is the Murray-Darling, there is a very strong desire for there to be a precautionary principle at play here," she said.
"It has been a very visceral demonstration of what can go wrong in over-allocation.
"Most people would see what happened at the top of the river with the massive allocation for cotton and the weather patterns change. That can happen here too.
"Over time these things can be reviewed, but once you've over-committed it is so difficult to pull back so it would suggest to us the better way would be to start at a modest level and potentially over time grow that.
"We think a more modest approach would be one that is sensible, and there are people talking somewhere around the 300 to 600 gigalitres [range].
"We think those figures around that sum would still give us ample opportunity for growth in the industry, both in pastoralism fodder crops and irrigated agriculture."
A torrent of opinions
Ms Mactiernan and her fellow environment, water and Aboriginal affairs ministers have a tough task trying to please everybody and it is inevitable someone will be disappointed.
Hancock general manager of agriculture George Scott recently told a meeting with Kimberley farmers there was potential for 160,000 hectares of irrigated farmland in the Fitzroy catchment, citing a 2018 CSIRO study.
He said strong industry would create thousands of jobs in the region and address the chronic social dysfunction in Kimberley towns. He took aim at environmentalists who didn't live in the region.
"Part of the Kimberley's future has to be to allow at least small parts of it to be developed so that it as a region can progress," he said.
"Red tape, green tape, and social dysfunction has been created and it has maintained a culture of dependence in the Kimberley, that is continually reinforced by politicians sacrificing the Kimberley's opportunities to satisfy the social propaganda of the voting inner-city public - who are subsequently not directly affected by the results - and noisy lobby groups, who often live thousands of miles from the Kimberley and have most likely never lived here.
"We can produce more food of higher quality right here if we allow a small part of the resources here to be developed.
"And let's be serious. Who wants to farm the marvellous gorges or ranges or coastlines that the Kimberley is famous for? Who wants to turn this part of the world into the Murray Darling where the water resources are over-allocated?
"The answer to those questions is no one does."
Environmentalists, however, are resolute in their opposition, preferring groundwater irrigation options and backing calls from traditional owners to create a buffer zone.
"The only way to prevent a Murray Darling-like scenario in the Fitzroy River is by having a buffer zone to protect the natural flows of the river and floodplains," Environs Kimberley director Martin Pritchard said.
"Under this scenario the river and floodplain is protected from dams, big pumps, channels and irrigation to guarantee the cultural values and health of its famed barramundi and critically endangered sawfish.
"Options for small scale irrigation using groundwater away from the river would remain open.
"Sustainable development doesn't have to be pastoralism. Other economic development options are being considered including carbon management, bush foods, cultural and eco-tourism, renewable energy, creative industries and ecosystem services.
"Introducing a new irrigated agriculture industry to the Fitzroy wouldn't be further pastoralism, it would be a whole new industry with massive new impacts on the rivers cultural and environmental values."
The Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council, which is representing traditional owner views, came up with the buffer idea but sits somewhere in between the development and environment viewpoints.
The council believes there can be a "win-win" scenario with sustainable development and protection of the cultural and environmental features of the Fitzroy River catchment.
What lies beneath
Ms Mactiernan said while in public these groups were talking tough, behind closed doors they were working well.
"Our job is to get them all working together and I must say I'm very pleased with the maturity that is emerging from those groups and there is a lot of desire to work together," she said.
"I'm seeing very positive signs that the three groups realise they've got to work together; that this is not a zero-sum game and no one can play absolute hard-ball. There does have to be some accommodation.
"They will come together mid-year to review all the work that's been done, put there and start the detailed negotiation of what this thing should look like."
- SMH/The Age