January 28th 2017

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COVER STORY Company tax proposal just made for Trump

EDITORIAL Trump installed but the left refuses to accept it

CANBERRA OBSERVED Greens' footprints all over travel claims

U.S. POLITICS Team Trump to implement new President's agenda

INTELLIGENCE Lame report on Russian interference in U.S. poll

ENVIRONMENT The scientific myth within the Murray-Darling Basin Plan

EUTHANASIA Case for assisted suicide "not made": Daniel Mulino

OPINION Submission is the fit word, Tim, not humility

OBITUARY WA loses NCC founding member, Frank Malone

GENDER POLITICS Safe Schools Coalition versus child safe schools

RURAL LIFE Sandalwood a balm for forgotten farmers

MUSIC Swing low and deep: it don't mean a thing if it don't have that

BOOK REVIEW The tyranny of the offended

BOOK REVIEW Not quite perfect but worth a revisit

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The scientific myth within the Murray-Darling Basin Plan

by Dr John Conallin

News Weekly, January 28, 2017

Statements relating to the amount of water that should be permitted for irrigation under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan are misleading and manipulative.

For instance, the Australian Conservation Foundation’s healthy ecosystems manager, Jonathan La Nauze, said in a media release last November: “The [Murray-Darling Basin] Authority’s legislated mandate is to set at scientifically determined sustainable levels the amount of water that is permitted to be taken out of rivers for irrigation.”


Even a river considers its path before moving forward.

This whole notion of “the science says” is ridiculous to another scientist. We use best available science and modelling to determine the flow targets for ecological outcomes. Therefore they are not facts; we are hypothesising (a scientific best guess) the amount of water needed to be kept back for the good of the environment. They are assumptions, not facts, not scientific “knowns”.

How can we know what the real outcome is going to be? We haven’t seen the result yet, so how can we have a “determination”? Science is being touted as determining a course of action rather than merely supplying information to inform decision-making.

Figures are supposed to be adjusted as new information comes in, and that is what is called adaptive management. In contrast, hypothesising an end number, and then blindly fighting for it, goes equally against scientific principles and against adaptive management principles.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is not an ecological plan, it is a triple bottom line plan, which means you work towards social-ecological acceptable outcomes.

The best available science at present highlights that social impacts are significant and that significant third-party impacts do occur under the relaxed constraints scenarios, as we learned through the latest flood events. So, you look to adjust. That’s using best available science; that’s adaptive management.

Science is being used selectively to satisfy the needs of political agendas.

Look at floodplain inundation and wetland fish recruitment. The latest science shows us that carp, an invasive species, benefits much more from the current floodplain inundation than do native species in the upper floodplains. On the other hand, the science also shows that productivity increases downstream, which benefits native fish populations in the lower reaches of the basin.

We know through science that these native fish also swim upstream to live, so benefits go both ways. Depending on which side you are on, you can use the first argument or the second one, but you rarely hear both brought out.

This obsession with modelled flow targets and water as a single solution to the health of the system is not scientifically justified. If you want to build resilience into a system, you need to take action in several components, and that means taking into account other measures that are needed to coincide with water flows, as has occurred in the past.

Flowing water environments are known to be important, but you don’t promote their health simply by pushing water from the top. You manipulate weir pools, and you allow a once natural estuarine system to become that way again. You restock fish that are locally extinct, build fish ways, and deal with cold-water pollution. Water is only one variable needed to reach the outcomes desired under the basin plan.

Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder David Papps and his team have it right when they say that they are trying to meet “ecological” targets, not “flow” targets. They monitor and they adapt using the latest information from that monitoring.

They work within local community expectations and they take a precautionary approach. They work with the people in those areas where the use of environmental water can have either a positive or a negative impact. And they are getting results.

Working primarily in a developing world context where water wars are a reality, I cannot believe a so-called developed country would stoop so low as to prostitute out models and assumptions as facts, and ignore new information as it is generated.

A pragmatic way forward would be to use the water we have now to our best knowledge, increase complementary measures, test the assumptions, continue to manage adaptively, and use good science to inform us on whether we are meeting the intended outcomes.

That would be something to showcase to the world.

Dr John Conallin is an Australian environmental flows specialist and visiting researcher, M&E expert and science coordinator at present based at UNESCO-IHE, Delft, Netherlands.

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