Perin Davey

NSW Nationals Senator Perin Davey spent years working in water policy before entering Parliament. Here she writes about why it’s important to look at real-world results, not just numbers on a page, when it comes to water.

In any other world 97 per cent would be a high distinction.

It is a sad indictment of our consensus-based water policy environment that we blindly ignore what, in any other area, would be heralded as success to focus on a number that was put on a page in an 11th-hour political deal.

And it is unfortunate that, while ever that number remains on a page, it is unlikely we will see peace in our consensus model and a restoration of confidence in our irrigation industries who should, but for that number, be rejoicing the end of the drought.

So let’s stop looking at that number on the page and stop looking at out-of-date modelling assumptions and look at what we have actually achieved in practice.

Since 2009 the Commonwealth has acquired almost 2100GL (or 2,875,939 registered entitlements held by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder). Governments have delivered, or are on track to deliver, 27 of 37 SDL Adjustment projects to contribute to the 605GL ‘down water’.

If the adjustments are accepted we are virtually 97 per cent of the way to achieving water recovery targets. At the same time, in the southern system, practice is already seeing states operate within the sustainable diversion limits.

More importantly, the water recovered has been used to keep the Coorong connected to (South Australia’s) Lower Lakes for 10 consecutive years. On top of this the Lower Lakes have not fallen below 0.5 AHD and the all-important (for South Australians if no one else) Goolwa-Milang Regatta has been held every year since 2011 following the Millennium Drought.

By contrast, during the Millennium Drought, the Lower Lakes fell to 0.07 AHD and the Regatta had to be cancelled for three consecutive years.

According to the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, over the last decade they have delivered over 8000GL to environmental sites, supported some of the largest native fish and bird breeding events in decades, and watered over 120 sites and 20,000km of river channels.

At the recent Senate Estimates we were told that dealing with constraints is now more important to the CEWH than getting more water.

Thanks to the Basin Plan, environmentally this drought (2019 was the driest year on record) looked vastly different to the last drought – environmentally, that has to be a success.

But for farmers in NSW and Victoria, there was no such good news with low allocations and soaring water prices making most broadacre farming and dairy virtually unviable.

After the year we have just had, with drought, fire and pandemic wreaking havoc on our economy, it has to be time for a rethink.

We should take the 97 per cent high distinction with pride, and accept that the cost of achieving the final 3 per cent is too high a price to pay for our vital agricultural industries and the communities they support.

Perin Davey is The Nationals’ Senator for NSW. Based in Deniliquin she spent nine years working for in the irrigation industry specialising in water policy prior to entering Parliament in 2019.