Murray Darling Basin Authority – MEDIA RELEASE: Complaint: 60 Minutes ‘Water Rats’

Murray Darling Basin Authority – MEDIA RELEASE: Complaint: 60 Minutes ‘Water Rats’

Chris Walker

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Regarding: Channel 9 60 Minutes, Sunday 27 October 2019

Published: 04 November 2019   •   Media release

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) is submitting a formal complaint about the ‘Water Rats’ episode of 60 Minutes. The episode and subsequent online articles on news.com.au and the 60 Minutes Facebook page also contain factual errors.

The MDBA is making this complaint as a breach of the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice, Section 3-News and Current Affairs. 3.3 Accuracy and fairness 3.3.1 – In broadcasting a news or Current Affairs Program, a licensee must present factual material accurately and ensure viewpoints included in the Program are not misrepresented.

Factual errors – 2019 Barmah-Millewa forest: The program asserted the following: there was millions and millions of water being wasted by government authorities, the river was flooding over the banks through mismanagement and deliberate flooding, the MDBA is delivering massive water sales through the Choke which caused overbank flows, this water was toxic and stagnant, mismanagement on a grand scale, and an unnamed senior ecologist said it was causing environmental damage.

The MDBA maintains the true facts are:

  • This 2019 spring watering event, which included watering the Barmah-Millewa forest, was planned and coordinated by the five environmental water holders using their allocated water. The order for this water was placed through the state water agencies of NSW and Victoria. The MDBA then delivered these orders as requested and as per the operating rules for the River Murray System.
  • This was a purposeful watering of the forests for the health of the river red gum forest. The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH) released a statement after the program, they were not contacted by the program before it aired.
  • The program did not mention that the environmental water holders had ordered this water specifically for flows through the forest, or that the MDBA was delivering on their order according to the operating rules. The flow rates being delivered are considered well within the regulated flow limits, and are well below what are considered flood flows.
  • For planned watering events, states have arrangements in place to ensure environmental water holders are responsible for any losses and these are factored into their orders. This means the environmental water holders can water the forests without impacting on the water availability of others.
  • The program provided viewers with no context and gave the impression that the MDBA had chosen to flood the forests negligently to provide water to allocations downstream. This is incorrect.
  • The unnamed senior ecologist referenced in the program said the forests were in poor environmental health. Since 2006, these forests have been monitored, and the results of this extensive program are available publicly on the MDBA website. This scientific assessment has found that releases of water are improving the overall health of the Barmah-Millewa forest, and the forest is in a good condition.

Factual errors – losses in 2017/18: The program stated a man-made flood occurred last year, showed satellite imaging of water lost through the Barmah forest from the government authority meant to manage it, the program then said losses were too high, and the MDBA had hidden this in a bureaucratic report.

The correct information is:

  • The MDBA published a detailed report on system losses in early 2019, along with an easy-to-read snapshot factsheet. This is the first time information on system losses has been reported, and improves transparency around how water is managed. To state that MDBA hid this information in this report is untrue.
  • The MDBA provided extensive information on River Murray losses in the statement to the program. As the statement clearly explains, losses occur when water evaporates, is used by plants or seeps into the ground. These losses are factored into water orders through ‘conveyance’—which is the water needed to deliver a water order.
  • Conveyance losses vary from year to year, depending on demand for water and conditions including rainfall, soil condition, heat, wind and inflows from tributaries.
  • As the MDBA statement said losses are normal in delivering water across all systems. Losses are a normal part of running any river, and should not be confused with planned watering events made by the environmental water holders.
  • The MDBA said in the statement 2018/19, losses in the Murray system were higher than average due to high demand, low inflows, drought and hot conditions. This context was not provided.
  • System operations were undertaken in the water year 2018-2019 consistent with activities undertaken in the past, and this includes transferring water around the choke through the Barmah-Millewa Forest.
  • The MDBA maintains that the river was operated efficiently and effectively in order to deliver state water entitlements in light of the climatic conditions that prevailed. 

Right of reply – MDBA and its role

  • The MDBA offered the program an on-camera interview and an off-camera briefing. Both offers were rejected by the producer who asked for a written response to a series of detailed questions.
  • The MDBA provided a comprehensive statement in response to these questions, including website links to more information. 60 Minutes published the MDBA’s statement on their website, and only referred to it after the segment had concluded.
  • The factual errors in the program suggest the statement had not been considered in presenting the content.
  • As the MDBA explained in its statement, the MDBA determines the volume of water released to meet demands, but does not own any water—the MDBA can only release water from storage to meet state orders or system demands. The MDBA has no involvement in water allocations and entitlements, this is a state government responsibility.
  • The program insinuated the MDBA is the sole government agency responsible for water markets, trade, environmental health of the Basin, and river operations. There are many government agencies that are involved in water management. The Murray–Darling Basin Authority operates the River Murray on behalf of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.

LINK TO ORIGINAL ARTICLE: https://www.mdba.gov.au/media/mr/complaint-60-minutes-water-rats