Environmentalists have begun a grass-roots campaign to ensure the ailing Murray-Darling Basin river system gets all the water it needs to return it to health.
Voices for the Murray-Darling, which is made up of various green groups, will hold public meetings and letter-box homes in a bid to get Australians to push for higher environmental flows.
A draft plan released this week by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) proposes returning 2750 billion litres annually, but environmental groups say that falls well short of what’s needed.
The alliance will be calling on Water Minister Tony Burke, who has the power to amend the final plan, to increase the minimum return to 4000 gigalitres, as was specified in an MDBA guide released last year.
“The floods brought some relief to the environment near the mouth of the Murray and right now the remaining businesses and communities are benefiting,” the Southern Fishermen’s Association’s Neil MacDonald said in a statement.
“But the river will continue to die from the mouth up if we do not act now.”
Conservationists have seized on a CSIRO report commissioned by the MDBA, which said a 2750gl return will not meet all its environmental targets.
“It won’t remove the two million tonnes of salt that gets deposited every year and it will destroy internationally recognised RAMSAR wetlands,” The Wilderness Society’s Peter Owen said.
Victorian irrigator John Pettigrew heads the Environmental Farmers Network, representing farmers who are concerned about things like climate change and the loss of farm biodiversity.
He said there were question marks about the way the authority assessed the impact on irrigation communities, and didn’t take into account their ability to adapt.
The authority believes the impact on basin communities will be small, but concedes there may be a loss of up to 1600 jobs and $1.1 billion to agricultural production up to 2019, when the 2750GL limit is due to be enforced.
Opposition water spokesman Barnaby Joyce, who has just wrapped up a three-day tour of basin communities, said the effects were already being felt.
People in Deniliquin, in southern NSW, told him sales have gone down by over 20 per cent since the guide was released and locals are preferring to rent homes rather than buy because of all the uncertainty.
Irrigators want the minimum environmental return to be lowered.
Senator Joyce urged interested locals to get to the public meetings, which begin in his Queensland electorate on Wednesday.
“The authority is putting these meetings on at an inconvenient time during harvests and holidays,” he said.
“But if we don’t stand up now, we will miss our opportunity to deliver a better plan.”
The 20-week public consultation period ends in mid-April.