The Murray Darling Basin is Australia's main food bowl. The health of the basin is critical to our food security and food exports.
More than a century of irrigation has put its waterways under enormous stress. We've known that for decades, but for many years we did nothing other than draw more and more water.
By the turn of the century we were reaching crisis point. Farmers can't farm without water. We had to ensure they have water for the decades to come and beyond.
Very few contested the need to act earlier, it was just hard to secure agreement among so many disparate stakeholders. Anything you do at one end of the system affects the other end. So it hasn't just been a battle between conservationist and irrigators, it's also a contest between state governments, farmers in the north and farmers in the south, and grower against grower. To further complicate the issue, there are significant indigenous and cultural matters to consider.
In 2012, stakeholders came to an agreement. It wasn't perfect and no one secured everything they wanted. The Murray Darling Basin Plan was born. Its main objective was to return the water flows the rivers need to stay healthy and to supply water to our farmers into the distant future. Its main mechanisms were to restrict how much water can be taken and to use taxpayers' money to compensate farmers adversely affected. It also used our money to help irrigators build the infrastructure needed to use water more efficiently.
The plan has been operating well, but it can be improved. Making changes is difficult though because change risks advantaging some stakeholders at the detriment of others. But it's been achieved in the past. A couple of years ago the Turnbull Government sought to put a cap on the volume of water buy-backs. All the states agreed as did the federal opposition. It was done.
Change though is impossible without trust among stakeholders. Since 2012 we've enjoyed a good level of trust, but a fragile one. It doesn't take much for suspicion and mistrust to emerge.
That's what happened when Barnaby Joyce insisted on taking responsibility for water and transferred its administration out of the Department of the Environment and into the Department of Agriculture. That alone rang alarm bells for many. But Joyce then sent a clear signal he thought the plan was not sufficiently generous to irrigators.
Worse, he then declared that a key part of the original deal - the delivery of an additional 450GL of water back to the river in the future - might not be done as agreed.
If that was not enough to completely destroy a fragile level of trust and peace, we discovered some big corporate irrigators, who were being paid to give up water, were stealing it back from the river by constructing huge, non-approved and secret water channels. Worse, there has been no confidence that the NSW Government, which has the responsibility, was taking the theft sufficiently seriously, let alone stopping it.
So when the Turnbull Government proposed more changes to the plan recently, people were rightly arguing that until concern about theft was dealt with and a guarantee was given that the promised 450GL would be delivered, no change should proceed. Trust had to be restored first.
That's what all the fuss was about in the Parliament last week.
This opinion piece was published in the Newcastle Herald on 21 February 2018.