The 2013 annual wash-up

It’s the time of year for “best-of” lists and reflecting on the year that was. It is also (almost) one year since I started posting the weekly wash-up – summarizing the highs and lows of river and water news. So here it is –  a selective look back at what made the water news in 2013, with awards for the noteworthy and cringeworthy.

Extaterrestrial news

After initial findings of ancient Martian water, NASA’s rover Curiosity found water, and several other elements important for sustaining life are on the red planet. No aquatic life though, as you need to heat the soil to over 800 degrees Celsius to extract the water.

The Global wash-up

Back on earth, 500 scientists at an international water conference in Bonn warned  the majority of people on Earth will live with severe pressure on fresh water within the space of two generations. Pressure on water supplies was evident in Africa with Ethiopia beginning construction of a dam on the Nile. Egypt was quick to raise objections given about 84% of the water in the world’s longest river originates in Ethiopia and Egypt depends utterly on irrigation water from the Nile to grow its food.

The wash-up on Australia’s largest river

The scene was set for 2013 to be the year of implementing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.  The Basin Plan sets limits for how much water can be taken out of the system. At the moment we are taking too much water out. This means water needs to be recovered through a combination of investment in infrastructure efficiency and water buybacks.

Wetland on Naree station. Photo by Bush Heritage

A wetland in the Murray-Darling basin. Photo by Bush Heritage

Haggling among the States over implementation ensued early in the year. The NSW government wanted the Commonwealth to commit funding to water recovery infrastructure projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars before signing on to implementation. Unfortunately a study was reported on in July showing voluntary buy-backs are the most cost-effective option for water recovery. Infrastructure upgrades are more than two to three times the cost per megalitre.

By June the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder announced plans to trade water in the Murray-Darling Basin for the first time. Plans include delivering water to wetlands.

Meanwhile irrigators weren’t happy about listing of part of the Murray-Darling as critically endangered under National environmental law. The new federal government wasted no time revoking the listing.

The Murrumbidgee River - part of the Murray Darling Basin. Photo by John Baker.

The Murrumbidgee River – part of the Murray Darling Basin. Photo by John Baker.

And now to the awards:

The “who needs science?” back to the stone-age award

2013 wasn’t a good year for the promotion of science in aquatic resource management so there were too many contenders for this award. It seems ironic that at the time in human history when we have the greatest understanding of our natural world, pseudo-science and the voices of vested interests still have such a strong voice.

Strong contenders were the local governments who discontinued fluoridation of drinking water. After the Queensland Government gave councils the power to opt in or out of fluoridation late last year, six councils opted out of fluoridation by February. Councils in northern NSW also decided to drop fluoridation. This despite dental professionals advising fluoride is a safe and effective means of reducing dental decay across the population.

Unfortunately we are likely to see more of this ill-informed decision-making in a political environment that is cutting the funding and role of science. At a federal level our new government left science and water without portfolios.  At a state level the NSW government released a plan to replace its independent scientific committee for the Snowy River with an industry-funded advisory group. In the west the government axed the Swan River Trust that had provided monitoring data on that stressed system. The list goes on.

Swan River, western Australia. Photo by: Nachoman-au

Swan River, WA. TheSwan River Trust was one of the casualities of reduced funding for science Photo by: Nachoman-au

In March, cuts by State governments for the Murray- Darling Basin Authority were predicted to result in cuts to The Murray-Darling Freshwater Research Centre.  Credit to the Victorian government however who announced shortly after that it would continue its funding commitment and stipulated this funding should flow to the research centres.

The rogue State award

The Northern Territory gets an honorable mention for over-turning a twice-rejected application for a 5,800 megalitre water licence. The fact that the property owner involved is a member of the new CLP government in the NT and was a candidate for the federal election, was of course irrelevant. Luckily the NT government’s interest in community opinion or consultation on water issues doesn’t seem to be a priority given the axing of the Daly River Management Advisory Committee.

Daly River. Photo: Courtesy TRaCK CERF

The NT government axed the Daly River Management Advisory Committee in 2013. Photo: Courtesy TRaCK CERF

But my home State Queensland gets the Rogue State award for consistency in ignoring scientific advice and winding back environmental protections.  It started in January with the new government overriding the advice of dam managers and ordering release of water from Wivenhoe Dam. Heavy rainfall prompted the knee-jerk reaction in the wake of the 2011 Brisbane floods.

We also became home to an environment department intent on its own self-destruction. How else to interpret the pride in cutting environmental protections – which is touted as ‘cutting green tape”? The good news is this means money can be saved on employing people to monitor our environmental impacts or develop policy based on best science to address these issues. While temporary contracts not being renewed weren’t counted as job cuts in the public service, the loss of 30 water policy, koala research and conservation workers did make the news.

The “Pigs may float” dams are the answer award

And the winner is….

China who got some bad press during 2013 for the number and scale of its dam projects.  Dams built for hydro electricity raise an interesting conundrum about the trade-offs  between the supposed low carbon benefits of hydropower versus their myriad negative impacts on river function and biodiversity (not to mention the social impacts of dislocation).

Projects making the news included the South-North Water Diversion Project, initially a vision of Mao’s, that will take water from the south of the country to the arid northern region. It represents one of the world’s biggest feats of engineering and will take 50 years to complete.

Danjiankou reservoir, China. Photo courtesy International Rivers

Danjiankou reservoir, one of China’s many dams. Photo courtesy International Rivers

Hmm… That project rings a faint bell…. That’s right – turn it upside down and we have the forever recycled Australian idea of turning the rivers south. Given Tony Abbott’s pre-election policy discussion paper to build up to 100 dams across the country, maybe we have next year’s winner lined up….

The up the river without a paddle award

Goes to the managers of Fukushima, While not making headlines, the aftermath of the atomic disaster lingered on. Leakage of about 300 tonnes of highly radioactive water from storage tanks at the Fukushima complex was reported in August. At that time managers said it was possible the toxic water could contaminate groundwater and flow into the Pacific Ocean. By September up to $500 million of public funds had been allocated to tackle radioactive water leaks. It was also revealed that radioactive water would have to be released into the sea because it could not be stored at Fukushima permanently.

The “so good you could bottle it” dodgiest marketing claim

Goes to seven bottled water sellers who were advertising their products as ‘‘organic’’. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) told the companies they risked action for misleading conduct. In the context of food and drink, the word “organic” refers to agricultural products that have been farmed according to certain practices and standards. Perhaps a marketing idea for recycled water??

The best instance of water science meets religion

Goes to some enterprising Austrian water scientists who tested the water found in religious shrines and churches. Unfortunately instead of finding mystical healing properties they found something far more mundane – faecal contamination. The theory goes that in times past these often secluded locations had pure water that relieved symptoms of those made ill by contaminated city water. Agricultural development over the ages and poor hygiene from increased visitor numbers means now you’re better off drinking the water at home.

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