Minister Ley interview Warwick Long, ABC Ballarat Country Hour

25 August 2021


WARWICK LONG: Well, news that the Federal Government is going to fully fund a $3 million study, feasibility study, into waste to take pressure off the Barmah Choke, the narrow part of the Murray River system has caused much consternation lately, with a reduced amount of water being able to be pushed through that area of the river without water escaping or environmental damage being done. The Federal Member for Farrer, Sussan Ley, who's also the Minister for the Environment can join you now on the Country Hour. Welcome to the Country Hour.

SUSSAN LEY: Lovely to be on the Country Hour in Victoria, Warwick. How are you? And best wishes to your listeners.

WARWICK LONG: Yeah. We know we're the better side of the border, I won't let you answer that. Tell us about this study into the choke. What is its aim, in your view?

SUSSAN LEY: The Deputy Prime Minister signed off on the terms of reference on 18 August, so that's why we're talking about it today. What it will do is look at how we can better manage flows through this natural constriction of the river system, well-known on both sides of the border, because between Cobram, downstream of Cobram, upstream of Echuca, everything is sort of defined by the choke. As Environment Minister, I've seen considerable damage to the banks. And I've heard from holidaymakers, from tourism operators, from farmers, from just concerned community members, about that damage, so there's another aspect to this quite separate from how we best deliver the water. When I took the Water Minister, Keith Pitt, to the region - he's an engineer by background - he was very interested in how we could do better with a solution that looks after our farmers, manages our water more effectively, doesn't send more water downstream. I want to reassure every one of that, because, you know, there's a natural suspicion that is the way of actually allowing more water to leave our region. No, it's not.

WARWICK LONG: So you don't think it's being done with a view of benefiting things like plantations had a very thirsty downstream. At the moment, it's reported they don't have enough water.

SUSSAN LEY: Look, I'm very concerned about the increased permanent plantings on both the Victorian where there's probably a slightly more than there are of the New South Wales side. Now these were decisions made at local and state government level. I'm surprised at them. I know that there's been measures to restrict trade in the Goulburn to actually address too much water leaving the region, and that moratorium has been, I think, implemented in a way that has helped create uncertainty. These are big questions to be answered. The MDBA…

WARWICK LONG: What's your preference then? This is obviously a feasibility study looking at different things that can be done to keep water flowing through that area but not damage it any more than it already is being damaged. So, in your mind, what are the solutions here?

SUSSAN LEY: We need a win-win that uses the channel bypasses, the diversions that already happen, say, through the Wakool River, the escape capacity to rivers and creeks in our region. I don't know the Victorian side as well, but I imagine it's exactly the same. This is not about how we deliver more water to permanent plantings. You know, I absolutely stand by that, and that's why the terms of reference was so important and took a while to be signed off. This is about, well, how do we use existing delivery mechanisms? We've got the Mulwala Canal on the New South Wales side. It may be that we increase some in storage capacity where used in-river storage is better. We're certainly not going to be digging huge channels around the choke. When we talk about engineering solutions, it's not about anything as dramatic as that.

WARWICK LONG: Your colleague south-of-the-border, Damian Drum, sent me his thoughts earlier today, and he said, this should, once and for all, hit the idea of a bypass around the choke out of the ballpark. Get rid of it once and for all. And it sounds like you agree with that position.

SUSSAN LEY: I totally agree. And you know, the Victorian forest channel bypass that's been on and off the table for so long. It's not supported by Damian Drum. It's not supported by me. It doesn't really make sense. And it would be incredibly difficult to achieve when you think of all the planning, construction, environmental approvals, et cetera. But we have got water that's being delivered, not just through the Murray River channel, but via other systems. And we have got an ability to .. where we do it sort of sensitively ... in large storage capacity, perhaps that Euston, perhaps at the drop on the Mulwala Canal. Perhaps we construct a mid-river storage. These are not my ideas, Warwick. These are ideas that have been put forward that actually do make sense because the system, operating the way it is now, is not sustainable. Current flows are restricted to around 7000 megs a day, the lowest on any stretch of the Murray, and getting lower, where once upon a time they were modelled at 10,000 megs a day.

WARWICK LONG: And you are obviously a Member of Parliament in a key irrigation region, and there's a lot of passion there. You're also the Environment Minister. Are you concerned about the environment in the Barmah Choke? You spoke about the bank degradation earlier. Is there real cause for concern there?

SUSSAN LEY: Yes, I am. Because when people who've lived along the river all their lives tell me that they're almost watching the bank disappear before their eyes, you realise that this is quite serious. And it is, of course, because we've got high, well, they don't have to be super high, but just consistently, the river is not rising and falling the way it normally would have done. And that's just the way it's delivering water at the moment. It's interesting as Environment Minister, people often say, well, it's all the environment's water. In fact, it's not. There's all sorts of owners of that water. But what we do know is that pushing it through in periods of high demand is, you know, increasing notch erosion and making the bank unstable. And so yes, I mean, unless you have healthy roots, you don't have health irrigation systems. It all does start with that.

WARWICK LONG: Minister, thank you very much for your time on the program.

SUSSAN LEY: Always a pleasure.

WARWICK LONG: That's Minister for the Environment, also Member for Farrer, Sussan Ley, speaking there.