Radio interview with Geraldine Doogue – RN Breakfast

14 October 2019

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Well as summer approaches, communities along the Murray-Darling are again preparing for mass fish kills like those of last summer. Today, the Water Minister David Littleproud is releasing the Government's new plan to protect native fish in the river. It comes as the Department of Primary Industries is investigating a possible fish kill near Menindee in New South Wales far west. Minister welcome back to RN Breakfast.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: And I do have all your notes in front of me. 


GERALDINE DOOGUE: So what is the Government planning to do to protect native fish this summer?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah well look obviously after that horrific event last year, the Federal Government and the Basin state governments came together to make sure that we had a strategy to work together to collaborate and to make sure that we minimise the impacts of these events. We've got to understand this isn't the first of these fish death events; in fact there's been over 600 in New South Wales alone in the past 30 years. But what we've got to do is equip our water managers with the tools to be able to manage the waterways and the natural environment better and that's why we made an $80 million response after the Vertessy Report to make sure that these events are minimised into the future.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Look, I'm sure listeners will be thinking why did it take a disaster and such a crisis for everyone to realise there was such terrific strains on the system. What is your answer ultimately?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well as I said, these- this isn't a new event. Fish deaths happen from this, over the last the last 30 years we've had 600 of them. The reality is how do we equip our water managers better with the tools and that's what we've looked at and made sure that with the science, $20 million extra in science, to equip them with the understanding of how the water moves through the system. 

What you've also got to understand is that the water that was released that many say caused this event, actually created the largest spawning event of Murray cod in our nation's history. So the water that was released out of Menindee did have an environmental benefit. The water managers used the information they had in front of them at the time that conditions were going to be normal in the sense that rainfall may have come through to replenish it, but it didn't and obviously that was where a lot of the issues came from so we've made sure that we've invested in the science and technology to equip them to make better decisions and also make sure that those water flows get through. With using even satellite technology, we've invested more than twenty-odd million dollars into satellite and remote river sensing to make sure that the flows that are for the environment get through to the environment.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: You did say in a statement that it was a major wakeup call and with the drought still ongoing, isn't it the case there are many options open in terms of water management? There's virtually no environmental water left over for the northern area the moment.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well exactly right. Unfortunately until it rains, it hits the landscape and runs into the rivers. No one has been able to create water and the only way we can is from rain. And so what we need to do is prepare our water managers with the tools to be able to manage that and the community has a role to play, we all have a role to play. There's reporting in making sure we understand where the hot spots are now and we've actually got an interactive map that community can be part of in identifying where they're seeing water quality diminish and also the lack of water coming through. We're making sure that we're working with our state authorities and also making sure that we get this right through simple technology such as aerators, putting them into parts of the river that have stopped the flow to keep the oxygen moving so that we don't get these fish death events to the extent we did last year.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: How will the community be able to transmit this information here?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: That's through the MDBA and in fact- and through the state authorities and one of the things that we're proud to have done is we've moved 100 jobs out of Canberra up and down the river so that those that manage the river are living with those that live on the river. And that's an important step in making sure that we get better decisions by the MDBA and by the states in managing our water flows, listening to locals who have generations of knowledge on the flows of the rivers through their local areas. And that's why it's important we get these people out on the river, but the community always has a conduit through to the MDBA and these maps are quite interactive. And we're also working quite closely with state agencies to make sure that any intelligence is acted upon immediately.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: The Department of Primary Industries says an aerial photo appears to show a mass of dead fish in a pool at Lake Pamamaroo. A month ago, the New South Wales State Government warned of a fish Armageddon, and if this fish kill is confirmed now, does it make you very worried about what might come this summer?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Already has, Geraldine, I'm being very concerned with- the Bureau's not talking about significant rainfall, which again means that there'll be very minimal flows. So that's why we've worked with the New South Wales Government, and they took pre-emptive steps, in fact, only the past couple of months to move some of the fish from stagnant pools into other areas to try and protect them. And there's an extra $300,000 to work with the states to actually take those pre-emptive steps with aerators. And if we have to move fish we will. So we're doing all we possibly can until it rains, and I just simply can't make it rain, unfortunately. But when it does, obviously that will ease the pressure.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Just tell us more about moving the fish. What would be involved there, please?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, in New South Wales, only in the last month, the State Government there took pre-emptive steps on a pool of water that wasn't flowing and they were very concerned about the fish that were in that, and they got their officers in there and they cleared as many of those fish out and transported them to another watering point. So they took very proactive and pre-emptive steps around making sure as many fish survived as possible.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: And this is like, the Murray cod, and the silver perch, is that the sort …

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: The native species, that's correct. 

GERALDINE DOOGUE: The native species.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: So what we've also done to complement that is we're creating two new fish hatcheries, one in St George in Queensland, and one in Menindee, to make sure that we can replenish the native fish species. Obviously, the first step is to try and protect any deaths, and that's with the tools we need to provide our water managers, but we're also making sure that we're putting a backup plan with fish hatcheries in those communities, and hopefully our First Australians will run those and it'll be an economic boost for them. We're having discussions now to try and get that up and going as quickly as we can so that our First Australians can impart much of their knowledge to us, not only in the creation of new fish hatcheries, but also in managing the environment. 

GERALDINE DOOGUE: When do you hope that'll be up and running? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Look, the- hopefully within the next six to 12 months. We've obviously got to get these together with our first Australians. I know in St George, in my electorate, we've had very proactive conversation, and in fact, there is a plan being devised as we speak now, a business case that will work with them very quickly to try and get this up and going. 

GERALDINE DOOGUE:  And the Indigenous people have expressed interest, have they? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Oh totally, particularly in St George, the First Australians there have been very keen to be part of this. They feel as though this is a significant contribution they can make, not only in the fish hatchery, but also in the management of the rivers. There's a lot that we can learn from our First Australians.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Now the National Farmers' Federation is on record calling for a bipartisan drought approach; they say it's critical. Will the Government deliver that? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well we've got a drought strategy currently in place. It's in three parts. One in the here and now and the support to keep people going through Farm Household Allowance and concessional loans. It's about the community, which is the second phase, which is about giving councils a million dollars to stimulate local businesses. And the third phase is about the future, the Future Drought Fund, the $100 million dividend pays out for resilience programs in the good and bad years, but also only an extra billion dollars announced on top of the 3.2 we've already got for water infrastructure. So ours is a three phase program, and it's actually living and breathing as we speak. We asked the Opposition, who sadly, before there was a change of leadership voted against the Future Drought Fund, and I think the change of leadership has meant that there is a new way of thinking in the Opposition, that they work with us on that. The NFF is formulating their strategy as we speak, and I want to give them the respect to listen to them and add to it if we need to.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: David Littleproud, thank you for joining us.