This week, the Senate is debating changes to Australia’s most important water laws. These changes seek to rescue the ailing A$13 billion Murray-Darling Basin Plan to improve the health of our nation’s largest river system.
The Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023 is a crucial step forward. It proposes to lift the Coalition-era cap on water buybacks, allowing the federal government to recover more water for the environment through the voluntary purchase of water entitlements from irrigators.
It also proposes to extend the deadlines for the many beleaguered water-offsetting projects put forward by state governments.
Through the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists – an independent group working to secure the long-term health of Australia’s land, water and biodiversity – we strive to restore river health for the basin’s communities, industries and ecosystems. Here we ask whether the bill can fulfil the Albanese government’s 2022 election promise to deliver the plan.
The federal government must pass the bill in the next two sitting weeks to avoid triggering a statutory deadline, after which unfinished water offset projects would be cancelled and water recovery would be required instead.
Born of the crisis of the Millennium drought, the Water Act 2007 was announced by the Howard government to “once and for all” address over-allocation of water in the Murray-Darling Basin.
Five years later, the Basin Plan 2012 was established to recover 3,200 billion litres of water for the environment from other uses, or to implement projects that deliver “equivalent” outcomes. That includes securing 450 billion litres for the health of the River Murray, Coorong and Lower Lakes.
Of the 36 water offset projects meant to be operational by 2024, 16 are not likely to be complete, contributing to a likely shortfall of between 190 billion and 315 billion litres.
No onground work has commenced to alleviate flow “constraints”, leaving thousands of hectares of floodplain forests in the River Murray disconnected from their channels and at risk of drying out and dying.
The new bill represents a clear step towards the first of the Albanese government’s five-point promises to “deliver on water commitments” by removing the cap on buybacks.
Without buybacks, it is unlikely the federal government will be able to deliver the 3,200 billion-litre plan in full.
While the Senate Committee acknowledged the impacts of buybacks on communities, the committee found some concerns were “overinflated and not supported by the high-quality evidence base”, referring to a literature review.
The Wentworth Group has long argued for funding to establish a regional transition fund to support impacted communities through these reforms. As part of these reforms, “significant transitional assistance” was announced by Plibersek.
The bill requires additional measures to guarantee the unfinished business to which parliament agreed more than a decade ago:
a legally binding 450 billion litre water recovery target. The public needs a legal recourse if governments fail to deliver the full volume. We understand the intent of today’s announcement is to make the target a statutory requirement, in line with other water recovery targets under the plan.
improved integrity of the water offset method and withdrawal of unviable water offset projects The agreement reached today allows the Commonwealth to remove non-viable projects. Significant flaws in the method used to calculate water offsets still need to be addressed.
milestones in the bill’s proposed “constraints roadmap” which specify targets linked to incentive payments.
transparency and accountability measures to restore public confidence in water reform, such as whole-of-basin hydrological modelling, water accounting and auditing, and validation of annual permitted take models.
Several of these measures were announced today. We’re yet to see details but the high-level agreement is encouraging.
Urgent reforms can’t wait to 2027
Australia’s water laws have failed to address the rights and interests of Indigenous people. Indigenous peoples own a mere 0.2% of surface water entitlements in the Murray-Darling Basin.
In 2022, the Albanese government committed to “increasing First Nations ownership of water entitlements and participation in decision making”.
The Senate Committee found “overwhelming support […] that significantly more needs to be done to incorporate the values and interests of First Nations people in Basin Plan management”.
Many solutions can be readily incorporated into the bill. It should be amended so the legislation is consistent with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and recommendations of Indigenous organisations, such as the Murray-Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations.
The $100 million announced today for the Aboriginal Water Entitlement Program is welcome, although much was already committed and the remainder won’t make up for the lost value given entitlement prices, according to analysis commissioned by the Murray-Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations.
The bill also needs to provide greater clarity for basin communities on how climate change will be incorporated into the Basin Plan review, and strategies for adapting to climate change. This cannot wait until 2027 – communities need to prepare now for their future.
Celine Steinfeld is Director of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists.
Michael Vanderzee is a Water Policy Analyst with the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists. He is a former water policy adviser to the Victorian goverment with more than 12 years experience in national and Murray-Darling Basin water reform.
Planned gas developments on Western Australia’s Burrup Hub led by Woodside Energy could result in twice as much greenhouse gas being emitted as any other Australian fossil fuel development up for approval, according to an analysis by environment groups.
The analysis led by Greenpeace estimated the Burrup Hub expansion could lead to 6.1bn tonnes of CO2 across the decades ahead if fully developed – roughly 13 times what Australia emits annually. Most of the emissions would be released when the gas was sold and burned overseas.
But to reach our ambitious goal of boosting protection to 30% by 2030, we’ll have to sharpen our focus and boost funding.
In December last year, Australia joined 195 other nations in signing on to the Global Biodiversity Framework to tackle the world’s worsening biodiversity crisis. Each nation agreed, in brief, to set a goal of “30×30” – protecting at least 30% of land, freshwater and ocean ecosystems by 2030.
Our territorial waters already have 45% under varying forms of protection. But land can be harder. The question now is – how do we get to 30%, which includes land and freshwater ecosystems? In a new report, we show how we can do it.
Buying land to protect it works, and works well. Between 1996 and 2013, the government’s National Reserve System Program channelled funds to state governments and land trusts to buy tracts of land to protect some of our most endangered and least protected ecosystems, such as native grasslands and wetlands.
Under fund-matching provisions, the program led to new state government and philanthropic money invested in conservation. If we fund a new A$5 billion program, we can begin making conservation gains again.
2. Support creation of new Indigenous Protected Areas
Since the 1990s, two-thirds of the growth in Australia’s protected lands has come from expansion of Indigenous Protected Areas. Combined, these 84 areas now cover over 87 million hectares and account for fully half of all of our conservation estate on land across iconic places such as the Kimberley, Arnhem Land, Cape York and the vast deserts of central Australia.
Traditional Owners are managing species such as bilbies, rock-wallabies and Gouldian finches to protect biodiversity. We will need more of these areas to hit our goal. One problem is funding has been largely short-term and insecure – we’ll need long-term funding for existing areas as well as new ones.
3. More conservation on private land
For decades, environmentally focused private landholders have placed conservation covenants over their land. When the land is sold, the covenant goes with it, obliging the new owner to keep conserving nature.
To get to 30% protection, we will have to encourage more permanent covenants. That’s because many of our under-protected bioregions and ecosystems overlap with where we live – think coastal scrub or native grassland.
To galvanise this sector, we’ll need direct federal support for conservation covenant programs run by the states and territories.
As Victoria and Western Australia announce an end to native forest logging, we should explore the areas previously set aside for logging with an eye to protection based on ecosystem, carbon and water values. First Nations communities have rightly asked to be involved in what happens next.
Conservation isn’t just about hitting a target
Why do we need all four methods? To avoid temptation. When we set targets such as “30% of land”, it can be easy to look for the easy route. In Australia’s case, that might be by mainly conserving large new tracts of desert – many of which are already well represented in our protected estate.
Instead, we should look at what the 30% goal is for – to stave off the extinction crisis and stop the biodiversity freefall. To do that means protecting adequate samples of all of Australia’s unique species and ecosystems.
Australia is already internationally seen as an example of how to expand a nation’s protected areas. For the past 30 years, the expansion of the estate has largely been done well, increasingly focused on comprehensive, adequate and representative protection. New protected areas tend to cover landscapes and ecosystems with little or no protection.
While our national parks are known and valued by most Australians, agreements with Indigenous and private landholders are less known but increasingly vital.
Despite these successes, the growth of Australia’s conservation estate has slowed since federal funding for land purchases ended in 2013. Science tells us we urgently need more safe spaces for nature to protect wildlife, people and the planet.
Importantly, new protected areas have to come with funds for management. Drawing a line on a map isn’t job done. Our ecosystems are under great pressure from climate change, feral species and human use. If we don’t fund ongoing management, hard won gains for threatened species can quickly be lost.
The government’s proposed Nature Repair Market might help, but secure ongoing government funding will still be critical.
Australia has the toolkit to get to 30×30. Now we need substantial investment and interest to sharpen our tools.
James Fitzsimons is Senior Advisor, Global Protection Strategies with The Nature Conservancy, is a Councillor of the Biodiversity Council and a member of the Australian Land Conservation Alliance's policy and government relations committee. The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organisation dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. The Nature Conservancy partners with governments, NGOs and Indigenous communities on protected area outcomes to advance Australia's 30×30 commitments.
Exclusive: Data shows that including CO2 from countries once under colonial rule makes Britain one of world’s biggest historical emitters
The UK is responsible for almost twice as much global heating as previously thought when its colonial history is taken into account, analysis has revealed.
The UK’s domestic emissions account for 3% of total world emissions dating back to 1850. But when responsibility for emissions in countries once under the British empire’s rule is given to the UK, the figure rises to more than 5%.
The Albanese government will head to a major UN climate summit in Dubai furnishing evidence claiming that Australia is all but on track to meet its 2030 emissions target, but facing calls that it must do more to limit the country’s fossil fuel exports.
A snapshot of an upcoming emissions projections report released by the climate change minister, Chris Bowen, suggests Australia will likely cut its CO2 pollution to 42% below 2005 levels by 2030 – nearly in line with the government’s 43% reduction target.
Exclusive: Simon Stiell says leaders must ‘stop dawdling’ and act before crucial summit in Dubai
World leaders must “stop dawdling and start doing” on carbon emission cuts, as rapidly rising temperatures this year have put everyone on the frontline of disaster, the UN’s top climate official has warned.
No country could think itself immune from catastrophe, said Simon Stiell, who will oversee the crucial Cop28 climate summit that begins next week. Scores of world leaders will arrive in Dubai for tense talks on how to tackle the crisis.
A lot of the time, politics feels incremental. But every now and again, a big thing happens suddenly. Chris Bowen made it clear this week the government intends to transform the fundamentals of Australia’s energy grid. Labor has been saying this for ages of course, but this week, words were matched by a concrete plan of action.
Bowen unveiled a radical expansion of a capacity scheme intended to reshape the national electricity market. Coal is coming out, renewables moving in and taxpayers will underwrite the transformation. This is the biggest strategic shift Australians have seen in this policy area for a decade or more.
As predators at the top of the food chain, dolphins tend to accumulate and magnify high levels of toxins and other chemicals in their bodies. So health problems in dolphins can be a warning that all is not well in the system as a whole.
One group of persistent pollutants has been dubbed “forever chemicals” because they almost never break down in the environment. Commonly known by the acronym PFAS, these per- and polyfluorinated substances are globally recognised as an environmental hazard and a potential human health issue.
In our new research, we found dolphins with the highest concentration of PFAS in the world live in Australian waters. One young Burrunan dolphin had liver concentrations almost 30% higher than any other dolphin ever reported.
This is a critically endangered species endemic to southeast Australia. While the consequences for dolphin health and the implications for humans remain unknown, the record-breaking concentrations are cause for alarm.
These record-breaking and potentially health-compromising PFAS concentrations are a major concern for the survival of the species.
Results from Australia and around the world
By far the highest PFAS concentrations in the dolphins we studied were of a particular compound called PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate). PFOS is one of the most studied PFAS compounds. It is listed on the Stockholm Convention, a global treaty on environmental pollutants, with international restrictions on use.
While Australia does not manufacture PFOS, heavy use of PFOS-containing firefighting foams occurred until the early 2000s. The Australian government still allows PFOS import for permitted purposes, such as mist suppressants in manufacturing and metal plating.
In recent years, public concern has prompted ongoing investigations into areas of high firefighting foam use, such as Royal Australian Airforce training facilities and airports.
While firefighting foam is a probable source of PFAS in waterways, there are others. Recent research in Florida in the United States found leaking septic and wastewater systems in urban areas were sources of PFAS runoff into the aquatic environment.
The Burrunan dolphins are not alone. In 2017, the South Australian Environment Protection Authority investigated PFOS concentrations in dolphins from Western Australia, South Australia and New South Wales. Dolphins in the Swan-Canning River Estuary in Perth, and in Port River or Barker Inlet, SA, had high PFOS levels (2,800–14,000ng per gram and 510–5,000ng per gram, respectively). These PFOS levels are similar to those in the Burrunan dolphin (between 494ng and 18,700ng per gram).
The globally significant PFAS and PFOS concentrations in multiple Australian dolphin populations demonstrates potential widespread contamination. This highlights our limited understanding of the short- and long-term consequences in our oceans and estuaries.
It is crucial we understand where different PFAS compounds are coming from, particularly PFOS, and whether the contamination is from a time when we didn’t know better (known as legacy sources) or if we are still releasing them.
Isn’t PFOS getting banned anyway?
The Australian government has expressed an intention to further regulate PFOS and two other PFAS. This marks a significant step forward. However, the problem with forever chemicals is they will be around for a really long time.
Typically, these chemicals are substituted with alternatives believed to be less detrimental, but unfortunately that is not always the reality. For example, early replacements for PFOS were initially thought to be less readily absorbed by body tissues and pose lower health concerns. But studies have shown their high biomagnification potential (with levels increasing higher up the food chain) and accompanying health risks.
While PFOS levels were highest in the Burrunan dolphins we studied, emerging contaminants such as PFMPA, PFECHS, and 6:2 Cl-PFESA were also detected. The presence of these emerging and replacement compounds in dolphins shows they are accumulating within our waterways and suggests it is more than our historic usage that might be a problem.
It’s not too late
Dolphins are the “canary in the coal mine” for coastal ecosystems. They live their lives in these inshore waterways and they consume tonnes of fish within their lifetimes. Finding these alarming contaminant concentrations is an important first step to highlighting the problem.
So now we know there’s a problem, we need to ask why. Then we need to determine what can be done about it.
The next step is mapping sources of PFAS so we can more effectively manage this threat to our wildlife and ecosystems.
In one study researchers compared data from underwater video cameras to traditional trapping surveys and achieved similar results. They detected 83 turtles from 52 hours of footage and identified all species in the study area.
Overall, baited remote underwater videos proved to be a “useful, time effective, non-invasive technique to collect relative abundance and species richness estimates for freshwater turtles”.
Another study provided the first vision of a wild saw-shelled turtle attempting to court a mate. The male sought affection from the female turtle by waving his feet and pressing his nose into her face.
Meanwhile, a different male was observed trying to mount a larger male. This was the first case of same-sex mounting seen in this species.
We are continuing to unravel curious turtle behaviour known as nocturnal basking. During the day, many reptiles regulate their body temperature by sunning themselves. But some freshwater turtles (and crocodiles) also emerge from the water and bask on logs at night.
To find out why, scientists in Queensland measured the preferred temperature of Krefft’s river turtles and watched them bask more when the water was hot. So it seems they do this to stay cool in hot weather.
Over in desert country, we recaptured Cooper Creek turtles after two decades. While we were there, the site became surrounded with floodwater – this provided a rare opportunity to find turtles moving onto the floodplain to find food.
We also found lots of baby turtles. This is in contrast to most places around Australia, which have ongoing problems with foxes eating turtle nests.
Conservation success stories
Foxes target freshwater turtle nests across Australia, reducing breeding success. Researchers are experimenting with measures to protect nests from predators.
Nest protection supports conservation of the endangered Mary River turtle. Over 22 years, more than 100 members of the local community in the Mary River Catchment have led initiatives to protect Mary River turtles. Working with communities has dual benefits – for research and for the people involved, who enjoy connecting to nature.
These collaborations have helped improve river management, informing delivery of water for the environment and improving the quality of river habitats for turtles.
Through the free TurtleSAT app, people can do more than just report turtle sightings. They can actively contribute to data-driven turtle management.
The app provides real-time data visualisation. The program website also provides education, helping citizen scientists protect nests, establish predator-free turtle sanctuaries, engage in national experiments, and deepen their understanding of turtles and wetlands.
With more than 18,000 records logged, 1,200 turtles saved from road hazards and 500 nests protected, this initiative is crucial in light of the growing threats faced by freshwater turtle species.
Of the 15 species or subspecies assessed, we recommended listing a higher level of threat for eight. This included western saw-shelled turtles, which were recently uplisted from vulnerable to endangered.
Threats include habitat loss, being eaten by foxes or feral pigs, disease, fire, and moving species into new areas where they breed with existing turtle species. To manage these threats, we need to move beyond engagement to an integrated approach, where conservation advice is co-determined by First Nations people who are closely involved in implementing recovery plans and action plans.
There is immense value in establishing long-term studies to track these long-lived species. And technology continues to provide new opportunities to learn more.
Future conservation and management will require working with communities to learn more about turtles and protect them. If one million people each save one turtle, collectively we will have made a big difference.
Pollution caused twice as many premature deaths as previously thought, with updated understanding of dangers of PM2.5
Coal-fired power plants killed at least 460,000 Americans during the past two decades, causing twice as many premature deaths as previously thought, new research has found.
Cars, factories, fire smoke and electricity plants emit tiny toxic air pollutants known as fine particulate matter or PM2.5, which elevate the risk of an array of life-shortening medical conditions including asthma, heart disease, low birth weight and some cancers.
Bowen says the scheme “underwrites new renewable generation and storage, providing certainty for renewable investors and cheaper, cleaner energy for households and businesses”. And if all goes well, the scheme will provide a financial return to taxpayers.
Most of the country still relies on dirty coal-fired power. Several power stations have already closed and many more have flagged intentions to close. The ageing fleet is also unreliable, causing power outages. Before coal exits the system, we need to replace it. This scheme will ensure that happens well in advance.
The government was not on track to achieve 82% renewables by 2030. It was clearly under pressure to do something about that. And now it has.
If what’s been announced today actually is built, then it’s likely we will be able to hit the target. The amount of new capacity being considered will certainly make a huge difference. So that’s 23 gigawatts of new variable renewables such as wind and solar, plus 9GW of “dispatchable” capacity, which involves storage – mainly batteries.
If the scheme does its job, it’s also likely to accelerate the closure of coal-fired power stations.
That will help us to reduce emissions but it also raises the risk of blackouts from grid instability. That’s a worry as we head into a long, hot summer.
We need to close the gap between closure of coal-fired power and new generators coming online to firm up the system.
Today’s announcement takes us to a total of 32GW nationally. Compare that to the total generation capacity of the National Electricity Market at about 65GW.
Under the original scheme, the federal government has begun to run competitive tenders seeking bids for clean renewable generation projects.
Under the expanded scheme, successful projects will be offered contracts in which a revenue floor and ceiling are agreed with the Commonwealth.
This scheme will be rolled out with regular six-monthly tenders from the second quarter of the 2024–25 financial year through to 2027.
In principle, it’s a good idea for two reasons. First, it provides a much greater level of certainty for investors. Difficulty getting people to invest in the renewable energy sector is one of the reasons why we’re not on track. In this case the government will be paying directly, holding auctions to guarantee a certain revenue for those who invest in these projects. In other policy instruments it’s really the consumer who ends up paying.
The way it’s done, through “contract the difference”, is pretty sensible, in that the government is only underwriting the risk, rather than the full amount of money. If the revenue the project actually generates in the market is within the agreed range, the government doesn’t pay anything.
But if the people who invested are not getting the agreed amount of financial return, the government will pay the difference. Or most of the difference anyway, through a formula yet to be worked out – but the government will certainly be contributing towards that difference.
On the other hand, it’s not a one-sided arrangement. If the project generates more revenue than the agreed ceiling, that money goes back to the government. So the government’s not signing up to an open chequebook.
Second, this approach puts all the responsibility for reliability of the grid in the hands of the states. That is, dealing with the closure of the coal plants and making sure there’s enough capacity to replace it.
That’s probably a good idea, because some of the states have different views about how reliability should be addressed. Some would not want to see any gas-fired generation being used to back up renewables; others may be happy to have gas-fired power or even a hydrogen power station to back up reliability. It will be up to them now.
Alongside these steps federal and state governments still need to step up the pressure on building transmission lines to connect all of this new renewable capacity to the grid. However, today’s announcement does nothing to address how this will be done.
What will this do to power prices?
I don’t expect it to make much difference to prices. While new renewables themselves are cheap, the transmission and storage needed to back them up will not be. So they’ll probably largely balance each other out.
The bottom line is we will be getting a more reliable and lower-emissions electricity sector at a relatively low carbon cost.
The Treidlia Auslepto vaccine, used to protect dogs against a strain of the bacterial disease leptospirosis, has been withdrawn from sale by the manufacturer after “adverse reactions”, including the death of one animal.