Leading scientists have blasted the Abbott government’s decision to scrap key bodies overseeing water reforms amid plunging reservoir levels, a looming El Nino and the longer-range threat posed by climate change.
The government said in the federal budget it would scrap the previously bipartisan-backed National Water Commission set up by the Howard government, and last year cut COAG’s Standing Council on Environment and Water.
John Williams, a founder of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, has criticised the changes.
”The current federal government appears intent on trashing the Howard heritage and retreating from its leadership legacy on national land and water policy,” Dr Williams wrote in the Australian Water Association’s newsletter.
Water concerns may intensify over the next year, with the Bureau of Meteorology’s annual National Water Account showing storage levels in the main populated regions dropped from 93 per cent in June 2012, to 75 per cent a year later. They are currently about 63 per cent.
The drop is even sharper for the Murray-Darling Basin, where storage levels have dived from 91 per cent two years ago to about 57.5 per cent, according to Grace Mitchell, a senior hydrologist with the bureau.
The prospect of an El Nino weather event forming in the Pacific – which typically means below-average rainfall for much of Australia – could lead to more falls in storage levels, with less inflow and greater water use, particularly from farmers.
”There are some signals of lower rain to come,” Dr Mitchell said. “We do have periods of plenty and periods of not so much abundance, and one of those might be coming up.”
Water Commission chairman Karlene Maywald said its role had been to audit whether governments were meeting water use goals laid down a decade ago. These include restoring environmental flows lost to over-allocation of both surface and ground water, particularly to agriculture.
”We can’t afford for there to be backsliding against the progress we’ve made,” she said.
The budget saving of $20.9 million over four years was ”small”, not least because the commission’s auditing and other tasks would have to be picked up by – as yet unnamed – other agencies, she said.
The government said it maintains “a strong commitment to progressing water reform and we will continue to champion the principles of the National Water Initiative,” according to a spokeswoman for senator Simon Birmingham, the Parliamentary Secretary responsible for water issues.
“There are a range of agencies who already do a lot of policy work in the water space and we anticipate some of the functions of the NWC may end up in the Department of Environment, some may end up in the Productivity Commission or some in ABARES,” the spokeswoman said.
Richard Davis, a member of the Wentworth Group and former science adviser to the water commission, said the government was yet to make clear ”whether they’ll even continue the [commission’s] responsibilities and who will be responsible for them”.
Both Ms Maywald and Dr Davis warned against the Environment Department being given oversight role for its own water management.
“What critical is that it’s an organisation with appropriate independence to carry out those functions, and it’s resourced sufficiently to do the job properly,” Ms Maywald said.
“You can hardly have the federal bureaucracy marking itself,” Dr Davis said, adding that staff cuts within the department itself also undermined its capacity.
Dr Davis said that while the government’s scrapping of the commission was ”a very bad decision”, the failure to prepare for the longer-term threat posed by climate change was worse.
”We are moving into drier periods for southern Australia, especially the south-west and the south-east, with much less rainfall and much less runoff,” he said.
”We’re bound to run into more intense, bigger droughts in the near future, and it’s the wrong time to be dismantling the apparatus that served us well in the last drought.
”We’re living on borrowed time and we should be investing for what’s coming our way.”
Dr Williams noted Senator Birmingham stated in 2012 that the Water Commission’s role ”in holding the states and the Commonwealth to account for actually delivering on water reforms is critical. Their role in providing expert analysis and advice is absolutely critical.”
Labor opposes the plan to abolish the commission, a spokeswoman for opposition environment spokesman Mark Butler said.
”The government has signalled that some of the very important tasks currently undertaken by the NWC will be conducted by the [Environment] Department, undermining the independence of those assessments and audits,” the spokeswoman said.
”Under the current proposal, the government will be assessing the effectiveness of its own water management strategies, which is unacceptable,” she said.