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Basin forces align with a vision of shared prosperity

Updated: Jul 16, 2021

Horticulture plantation adjacent a river
The One Basin CRC bid proposes new science to bring together the environment, agriculture and communities. Image: Riverland Wine

Hopes are high that the proposed ONE Basin CRC can finally bring the necessary holistic science and history to bear on the sustainable management of resources for the Murray–Darling Basin’s economy, environment and people.

Crises such as the massive fish kill in the Darling River in 2018-19 have brought the Murray–Darling Basin to national and even international attention in recent years, albeit with a limited focus on a single aspect of this vast and complex region.

Whether the focus is environmental or agricultural, or on the rural communities the Basin supports, this kind of single-sector thinking is bemoaned by many in the Basin, including Goondiwindi mayor Lawrence Springborg AM.

He says although the Basin is a significant contributor to Australian lifestyles through its food and fibre production, and its environment, there is “a lot of negative publicity … but not a lot of broader understanding”. To address this, his council is one of many who joined a proposal for a ONE Basin Cooperative Research Centre (CRC).

Goondiwindi Regional Council sits at the top of the Murray–Darling Basin on the border between Queensland and New South Wales. It is one of more than 80 partners in the CRC bid, most of which are located within the Basin.

A large and diverse consortium is hardly unexpected, given the importance of the Basin to the national economy and its geographic reach from eastern South Australia to central Victoria, across most of inland New South Wales to southern Queensland. In all, it takes in 14 per cent of the Australian mainland, is home to 2.2 million people and supports 40 per cent of Australia’s agricultural production.

Cr Springborg says the ONE Basin CRC will help to better understand and explain the critical nexus between the environment, production and sustainability in the region. It will create new knowledge to share with Basin communities and takes it to a broader audience. And it will do this in partnership with local communities, undertaking research that is critical to the Basin’s environmental sustainability and the best practices needed to help regional economies and populations to grow too.

Fish habitat

Fisheries scientist and environmental advocate Craig Copeland agrees there is a lack of broader understanding about the complexities of the Basin. He is among those working to address the conditions that led to the fish kills in the Darling River that drew the international media spotlight.

“Most people when they saw those fish kills just said ‘oh that’s terrible’. I still don’t think people understand why and how the situation got to where it did,” he says. Mr Copeland is also backing the ONE Basin CRC bid, as founder and CEO of OzFish Unlimited, a registered charity with 45 chapters around Australia specialising in inland fisheries habitat restoration.

He says the problems have been exacerbated by simplistic attitudes of river management being about water delivery, either for irrigation or the environment.

And while media coverage demonstrates a lack of understanding about the Basin’s complexities, it also overlooks the number of people willing to pitch in and help with solutions. There are more than one million recreational anglers who fish the Murray–Darling Basin rivers each year. Mr Copeland is certain many of them are keen to contribute to the future of the Basin.

“We want a healthy Basin and good fish populations. Part of making that happen is to work in partnership with other industries in the Basin. A single organisation cannot do this alone.

“There are so many other factors that affect the rivers and fish, which can be fixed,” he says. “Part of it is also getting people engaged with rivers again. The more people get involved in fixing things, and the more interested they are in the river, the more they’ll understand. Then we can have a more intelligent conversation about what needs to be done.”

Fisher standing in a boat on a river holding a Murray Cod fish
Recreational fishing communities can be an important part of environmental restoration efforts. Image: Western Murray Land Improvement Group

Connection to country

Key to those conversations is ensuring the voices of First Nations people right across the Basin are heard. An estimated 80,000 Indigenous people still have a deep connection to the Basin’s lands and waters.

Associate Professor Raelene Ward is part of the proposed ONE Basin CRC’s leadership team, developing its strategy to engage with First Nations people.

She is a descendant of the Kunja people from Cunnamulla, in south-west Queensland, and has been a practising nurse for 30 years. Associate Professor Ward is also a lecturer and researcher at the University of Southern Queensland, focusing on Aboriginal health, social and emotional wellbeing, mental health and social justice issues.

She says some researchers, industries and organisations have engaged well with Indigenous communities in the past, but there has been a lack of recognition around their connections to water, land and country.

More than 40 First Nations groups have deep social, environmental, spiritual and economic connections to country in the Murray–Darling Basin. Historically, its rivers, lakes and floodplains have provided water, food, shelter and transport, and are at the heart of many Dreamtime stories and cultural activities.

Associate Professor Ward says it has been devastating to see interrupted river flows affect the stories that are part of traditional knowledge sharing. Cultural flows are essential for maintaining country, influencing the number and types of animals, birds and fish found in different parts of the basin, and allowing Aboriginal people to undertake cultural activities like fishing, hunting, ceremonies and harvesting medicinal plants and herbs.

Associate Professor Ward gives the example of the iconic golden perch, known as yellowbelly, which holds cultural and spiritual value, especially in the northern Basin where it is a totem. Drying rivers reduce numbers of this threatened fish species, making it harder to teach new generations.

“It’s still shared but the meaning is not as evident as it used to be,” she says.

Governments have committed to establishing cultural flows – which are different to environmental flows – to be owned and managed by First Nations people, but they are yet to materialise.

Associate Professor Ward says what’s “unique and different” about the ONE Basin CRC is having a First Nations representative as part of the leadership team to provide advice on how to engage with traditional owner groups.

“That’s where the planned regional hubs will come into play,” she says.

Hunger for research

Regional research hubs have been proposed across the Basin at Goondiwindi (Queensland), Griffith (NSW), Dookie and Mildura (Victoria) and Loxton (SA).

Another member of the ONE Basin CRC leadership team, Gordon Stone, agrees the regional hubs will be key to the CRC’s success over the next decade.

Mr Stone wears several hats. He’s an Honorary Associate Professor at University of Southern Queensland’s Centre for Applied Climate Sciences and Director the Agri-Business Development Institute, a private company which provides business development programs to agribusinesses.

His clients, across both irrigated and dryland farming, are concerned about climate change and its likely impact on climate variability, extreme weather events and changing rainfall regimes.

Mr Stone says farmers and graziers are hungry for researchers to give them more practical information about temperatures, overland and stream flows, and underground water storage, and a better understanding of future probabilities of climate change and water availability. This includes what to expect next year, the year after, and even longer term, to underpin strategic decisions about their businesses.

“The idea of the regional hubs is to test solutions on the ground in their location,” he says. “It is ambitious, but there’s actually a huge amount of work already done. One of the first things the CRC is going to do is look at the available research and its applications. ‘Rifling through old filing cabinets’ is a key starting point so the researchers and collaborators can build on what’s gone before.”

There has been strong support for the ONE Basin CRC from the regions.

Based in Barham, NSW, Roger Knight is Executive Officer of the Western Murray Land Improvement Group and sees the ONE Basin CRC as a timely shift towards collaboration, pooling of expertise and research funding for a common outcome.

“We’re already working with community and Indigenous groups on monitoring, evaluation and rehabilitation of sites in our considerable network of rivers, creeks and wetlands,” he says. “There’s some really good synergies and opportunities in the CRC for us.”

In Griffith, Murrumbidgee Irrigation General Manager for People and Policy Karen Hutchinson says the CRC will allow irrigators to go beyond just modernising systems towards collaborative innovation and “achieving outcomes that none of us could get to on our own.” This includes partnerships with river operators and water supply forecasters and other Murray–Darling irrigation networks to share data and drive automated systems.

Chair of South Australia’s Riverland Wine Chris Byrne says growers have an urgent need for agronomic and technological innovation to improve water use efficiencies and adapt to a changing climate. This view is echoed by Anne Mansell, CEO of Dried Fruits Australia, in the Victorian Mallee.

“Water is the lifeblood of the region’s economy,” Ms Mansell says. “We’re highly dependent on water for irrigation, for the tremendous environmental assets we have here, and for our tourism sector.”

Woman holding grapes, standing beside grape vines.
Anne Mansell says regional productivity relies on best use of shared water assets. Image: Dried Fruits Australia

Regional partners have flagged numerous projects they would like to see the ONE Basin CRC tackle. They include:

  • Fish exclusion screens for water pumps

  • Crop varieties that are less susceptible to climate change

  • Trials of new technology to control irrigation using artificial intelligence and machine learning through networks of internet-enabled devices

  • Establishment of food processing precincts

  • Monitoring, evaluation and rehabilitation of riverine and wetland sites

  • Development of automated systems to identify weed hotspots in channels and rivers

  • Computer modelling of irrigation distribution networks to test the likely impacts of potential changes

  • Use of satellite imagery of crops at different growth stages to improve forecasting of water needs

  • Exploring possibilities for aquifer recharge

  • Help for farmers to adjust to changes in the water market and explore opportunities for diversification and technology to improve returns and competitiveness.

But Mr Stone says it’s not just farmers, fishers and First Nations people whose contributions will be needed.

“It’s going to be important for businesses, small and large, to be part of the ONE Basin CRC,” he says. “We want to complete the loop between government, industry groups like R&D corporations, larger corporations, small businesses and community organisations, some of whom have done this sort of work before.”

Next steps

ONE Basin CRC Interim Chief Executive Officer Professor Mike Stewardson says collaboration is critical for realising the innovative infrastructure, policy and services needed to address the Basin’s major water challenges.

“Leading this CRC bid has revealed the wide range of concerns and aspirations across the basin,” he says. “Although there are diverse perspectives, there is a common view that a strong independent science organisation is required to support adaptation by Basin policy, communities and businesses.

“I believe the CRC can bring together the different sectors to find solutions that will strengthen the Basin’s economy, environment and people. Aspirations for agricultural growth, environmental stewardship and empowering First Nations people can be addressed collectively. But working on one aspiration in isolation of the others is likely to result in contests that are difficult to resolve.”

If approved, the ONE Basin CRC is expected to deliver 3000 new jobs and almost $6 billion in risk-adjusted economic benefits, as well as significant positive environmental and social outcomes.

The bid has the support of a consortium of industry and community groups, universities, government bodies and businesses, which have committed more than $120 million to its operation. At last count there were 80 bid partners, including the Murray–Darling Basin Authority, Murray Darling Association, Hort Innovation, Wine Australia, the Cotton Research and Development Corporation, Almond Board of Australia, Elders and Kilter Rural.

Professor Stewardson made a personal presentation to the CRC Advisory Committee in February during the final stage of the current CRC selection process. Federal Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Thomas is expected to announce the successful CRC bids in March, with funding to be issued in October.

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