A fter 117 years, Australia entered a new era of water management with the federal government taking control of rivers from the states they run through. The federal authorities will spend us$10 billion over 10 years on conserving water and injecting more into the river system from Queensland to South Australia.
Prime minister John Howard struck the deal with four of the five Murray-Darling states. "New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory have agreed to the clear referral of powers sought by the Commonwealth (federal authority)," said Howard at the end of the deal signed in Canberra at the end of a water summit on February 23.
"(The plan) involves a significant shift of authority but is in the long-term interest of the country," said Howard. Victoria, however, refused to hand over its control of the river system. "The deal is not in the state's interest," said Victoria premier Steve Bracks. Howard is, however, hopeful and says he will continue talks with Victoria about its concerns to seal a deal.
The deal includes a review of the Commonwealth's handling of the system after seven years and the establishment of a Murray-Darling panel of experts to advise a federal minister with overall authority over the system. The chairperson of the body and two members will be selected by the federal government, while the states will select the other two. Around one-third of the package will be used to buy back water licences from irrigators to restore the natural flows of the rivers. The first step is expected to be the sealing of irrigation channels to prevent seepage and evaporate of millions of litres a year.
According to David Dreverman, manager of the river Murray water at the Murray Darling Basin Commission, storages on the river Murray, which currently holds just 13 per cent of the capacity, are at a record low. By May, they will effectively be empty.
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