Sustainable Water Strategy fails the water leadership test
Appearances can be deceptive. It’s hard to believe that we’re in a water crisis when we are surrounded by lush green, and the rain just keeps on falling. But the climate crisis that is becoming increasingly apparent the world over is also a water crisis, writes campaigner Juliet Le Feuvre.

It is raining less across south eastern Australia , and rainfall continues to decline. The  rivers of southern Victoria have already lost up to 20 per cent of their flows, and there is much worse to come as the planet warms.

Our rivers are struggling to survive as a result. This loss is on top of existing degradation caused by taking water for towns, cities, industry and agriculture. Rivers like the Yarra,  the Thomson and the Moorabool lose up to 50 per cent of their flows on a regular basis and even more in dry years. It’s like losing more than half your blood supply!

Ecological degradation is the inevitable result, and some of these rivers are reaching the point of no return to a healthier state.

A crisis like this requires strong leadership from government. It requires courageous decision making in the public interest and ending business as usual for the water sector and ‘once through’ use of water where wastewater is pumped out to sea. 

With a state election just around the corner, the Concerned Waterways Alliance is calling on the next Victorian government to show leadership by: 

  • Examining all options for returning water to rivers across southern Victoria in order to protect their health. Our current levels of water use are putting unsustainable pressure on our rivers. We must review the way water is distributed for use, including setting caps on extraction, rethinking how water licenses for agriculture and entitlements for cities are determined, and properly measuring and monitoring river water taken. No possibility for water recovery should be off the table, regardless of politically difficulty. 
  • Examining every option for increasing water supply for cities and agriculture from sources other than rivers and aquifers. We must get smarter about how we use water and move to integrated management that includes using recycled water and stormwater in business as usual. That means setting standards for recycled water quality so it is safe to use for all purposes, and developing precinct scale plans for capturing and using stormwater. Every choice, from large-scale augmentation including potable reuse to local showerhead exchanges, must be on the table for full and transparent assessment. 
  • Responding with urgency, setting clear goals and timelines for returning water to rivers and for increasing urban supply. We are facing an urgent situation, with Melbourne experiencing a potential deficit in supply as early as 2023 and our rivers facing permanent damage. The situation calls for urgent, clear and transparent decision making in the public interest and significant investment. 

The Victorian government’s first attempt at responding to the crisis is in their recently released Central and Gippsland Region Sustainable Water Strategy (CGRSWS).

A Sustainable Water Strategy is a big deal. It is a legislated, once-in-a-decade opportunity for the Victorian government to take a long-term view and set us on a course for more sustainable water use that is less damaging to rivers and aquifers.

It is legally required to take a precautionary approach and to look for opportunities to improve freshwater ecosystem health and add to the environmental water reserve. 

Let’s take a look at how well the CGRSWS matches up to our criteria for leadership. 

The strategy starts well. It admits we have a problem, indeed a crisis: climate change will further reduce water availability, while demand is increasing from a growing population. Rivers and wetlands are the jam in the sandwich, squeezed by both pressures, and unable to give any more water without serious compromise to their ecological functioning and integrity. Other sources of water, so-called ‘manufactured water’, such as stormwater, recycled and desalinated water, will need to be brought into the water supply system to meet the growing demand, and reduce our dependence on river water in future. 

It’s mostly downhill from there. The strategy identifies a large environmental water deficit (380GL) across the region, then at once says ‘We cannot recover all the water our rivers need …. This environmental water deficit cannot be met with a growing population and drying climate without taking water away from households, industry, businesses and farms – it is simply too large.’ (p203).  

The government proposes to recover ‘up to’ 99.5 GL for rivers over the next 10 years, just 26 per cent of the overall deficit. This may sound like a bit of water, but every single drop for rivers is dependent on something else happening, some augmentation of supply for human use, and is in addition to the 85 GL potential shortfall in supply due to climate change and increasing demand.  

The strategy is short on detail as to how any of this is to be achieved, referring instead to a future ‘water grid strategy’ and yet-to-be written integrated water management plans to achieve the savings. It sets out principles for investment, but the government is yet to commit any serious cash for new water supplies. 

Worse still, the government has ruled out several options for recovering water as ‘unviable’. They have ruled out any water recovery from agriculture, including the most cost effective and transparent means of returning water to rivers which is to buy entitlements from willing sellers or to compensate farmers for surrendering their licences.  

They refuse to regulate stock and domestic water use, which is to remain outside the licensing framework. And despite all the talk about increased use of ‘fit for purpose’ recycled water, they are not proposing to upgrade treatment plants to remove contaminants and potable reuse remains firmly in the too hard basket, dismissed as ‘lacking social licence.. 

Unfortunately, the government continues to postpone the hard decisions that the science says have to be made in the face of a diminishing water supply. This is a failure of the leadership test.

The strategy takes an incremental approach with some useful initiatives, but water diversion and extraction takes precedence. In effect, the major task of providing rivers and landscapes with sufficient flows to ensure stability and resilience is left to the distant, most likely unattainable, future. By that time, it will be too late, and we will then be confronting increasingly desiccated landscapes.  

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