14 – When our rivers ran dry 133 scientific results and strong political influence to once again derail a planning process in search of sustainability. The federal Water Minister in the Liberal National Party Government, the Honourable Malcolm Turnbull, visited Bullabellalie in 2005, acknowledging the serious impacts of water planning in the Lower Balonne system. There were widespread triple bottom line impacts to social, economic and environmental values (see Chapter 15). Vegetation dependent on the floods continues to die across large expanses of the floodplain. New South Wales and Queensland have gazetted national parks on either side of the border, largely reliant on floods from the Culgoa River there will be inevitable long-term consequences for these national parks – a case of the powerlessness of the environment arm of governments. Floods of most sizes, the prime drivers of productive grazing, are gone except for occasional large floods. Irrigation development upstream of the Lower Balonne floodplain has cost each floodplain grazing enterprise on average of ~20% of their production (Murray–Darling Basin Authority 2016b). The Northern Basin Review of the Murray–Darling Basin was completed in 2016 (Murray–Darling Basin Authority 2016c) with the recommendation to reduce the amount of water to be returned to the environment by 70 GL year (Murray–Darling Basin Authority 2016a). It is unlikely that there will be any real environmental improvement for the Lower Balonne floodplain, especially in terms of the key elements of reducing the interval between flows and increasing the duration and extent of flows, particularly in the low flow years. Intervals between flows show no improvement. The internationally important Narran Lakes system (Fig. 14.3) will continue to decline in environmental value. Development of irrigation has already had a significant impact on the finances of graziers, with the recommended flows under the Northern Basin Review only projected to improve production by 6%, compared to the 20% impact. Other socio-economic impacts were not measured, including the lost environmental productivity of the floodplain and the increased cost of providing alternative water supplies for downstream communities (see Chapter 15). The future The development horse has bolted, leaving a fractured and broken floodplain community on the Lower Balonne system, with significant social, economic and environmental consequences. There was some opportunity to rehabilitate some of the floodplain, through the Murray–Darling Basin Plan. Its main aims were to identify fair, efficient and sustainable use of the water across the Murray–Darling Basin rivers, including the Lower Balonne system. This was a major breakthrough but implementation for sustainability seems largely unreachable. Since 2012, the process of implementation has increasingly moved away from transparent and rigorous decision-making, with increased politicisation reflected in the recommendations of the Murray–Darling Basin Authority to reduce the environmental portion in the Condamine–Balonne by ~30% (Murray–Darling Basin Authority 2016c). My hope is that rigorous assessment of floodplain inundation could identify the watering requirements for these floodplains and the Narran Lakes system (Figs 14.1 and 14.3), setting a pathway for some environmental and economic recovery of the Lower Balonne floodplain.
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