Published in The Mercury, Wednesday 8 December 2021
Water is life.
We could not live without it, nor could Tasmanian society prosper. It is essential for energy generation, farming, manufacturing, tourism, and all our productive industries. For Tasmanians, water is also foundational to our blessed way of life.
Given our dependence on this precious resource, you’d think careful water management would be a top government priority. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Over the past year, the Greens have taken a deep dive into the management of Tasmania’s freshwater resources. Through research, numerous Right to Information applications, engagement with dozens of experts, the courage of a whistle-blower, and interrogation of the Minister in Parliament, we’ve uncovered a disturbing picture of ignorance, negligence, and mismanagement.
This failure is already having consequences. Even after a wet Spring, the Hobart area will be placed on water restrictions from 14 December due to environmental issues upriver. Meanwhile, treated drinking water from the Hobart supply will continue to be used for irrigation.
One major problem is no-one knows how much water is used in Tasmania. While households require water meters, 84% of users who extract water directly from rivers do not. In fact, there’s almost no oversight at all – only 61 out of 9220 direct allocations were audited in 2019-20. Tasmania is also the only state without a public compliance register for water rights. While the majority of users do the right thing, those who don’t are stealing water and impacting on river flows – as documented by Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water, and Environment (DPIPWE) scientists.
DPIPWE has also identified increasing competition between water users, saying many rivers have no more water to give. Yet this life-giving resource is gifted away. In Tasmania’s beautiful north west, Van Dairy – who have repeatedly breached environmental rules – hold licences to extract 30,000 million litres of water a year. Most comes from the Wey River, where Van Dairy pays just one cent for every 38,000 litres of water allocated.
At that price, Van Dairy could pay for the average Tasmanian household’s annual water usage with a five-cent coin.
In a changing climate, year-round availability of water can’t be taken for granted. The Gutwein Government claims that’s why they’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars on irrigation infrastructure. If used appropriately, infrastructure like this is an important tool to support primary producers in dry periods. That, however, is not the Liberals’ plan. Instead, they’re overseeing a massive expansion of water use, and pursuing a tenfold increase in agricultural production by 2050.
This policy goal is fraught with danger. It’s already adding pressure on Tasmania’s rivers and drinking water supplies, and will eventually expose producers to greater climate risk. Even Tasmanian Irrigation, a government business, has warned of increased risks for future development. They’ve described the impact of climate change on water availability as a “critical issue”.
The declining health of Tasmania’s rivers is another serious concern. In 2019, DPIPWE scientists completed a major scientific report which outlined a significant, accelerating decline in river health. It found poor river condition was associated with agricultural land use, water use, and salinity. The most worrying outcomes were recorded from 2014 onwards.
This report should have rung alarm bells. Poor river health can lead to disastrous consequences for farmers, the wider community, and the environment around the catchment, as we’ve seen in New Zealand where bad policy has driven catastrophic river decline.
But rather than taking urgent action, the Gutwein Government decided to keep the report secret. This was the last straw for DPIPWE water scientist Chris Bobbi, who resigned in despair. Mr Bobbi later told the ABC he felt, “the department was not fulfilling its duty of care” to Tasmania’s rivers.
Nearly two years after its completion, the Greens extracted this report under Right to Information during the election caretaker period. When we asked why it was kept secret, DPIPWE Secretary, Tim Baker, told a Parliamentary committee the report had been “superseded”. Department documents obtained by the Greens directly contradict Mr Baker’s claim.
Deepening concerns from scientists about Tasmania’s declining river health are being reinforced by anglers, oyster growers, tourism operators, and many farmers – to name a few. Even the Chairman of TasWater has written to Minister Guy Barnett to highlight unresolved questions about water security, increasing costs, declining water quality, and climate change. The Premier’s Economic and Social Advisory Council highlighted similar issues, saying they should be addressed by a broader policy approach as an “immediate priority”. That has not happened.
While the Liberals seem content to drag their heels, the Greens aren’t. In the new year, we’ll be pushing for a Parliamentary inquiry into freshwater management in Tasmania. We want to bring together scientific evidence, the voices of the community, and stakeholders of all perspectives.
The Greens understand protecting freshwater resources is essential for Tasmania’s future, and that we must act before it’s too late. This is urgent, and it affects every Tasmanian. We hope all MPs support our move for an inquiry into the future of our life-giving freshwater resources.