“It’s not a bathtub, where you’re only looking at volumes,” he said, adding the Murray-Darling Basin Authority “don’t have the resources now” to properly monitor environmental outcomes.
Mr Burke’s comments come a day after state and commonwealth water agencies, including the basin authority, held a meeting to devise ways to ease the impact on the nation’s largest river system from the severe drought and heatwaves. They plan to report to David Littleproud, the water minister, in a week’s time.
The NSW government on Wednesday began deploying the first of 16 aerators – six of them to the Darling River – in a bid to keep vital fish stocks alive in waters with low oxygen levels. The machines will increase dissolved oxygen levels in hypoxic waters caused by blue-green algal outbreaks, the low river flows and severe heat.
Parts of far-west NSW hit 48 degrees on Wednesday, while Swan Hill on the Victorian side of the Murray nudged the 46-degree mark. Regions of the Murray and Murrumbidgee have red alerts for algal outbreaks, while fish kills have been reported at Keepit Dam in northern NSW, among other sites.
The Herald also sought comment from the office of the water minister. Mr Littleproud is currently in Germany at a trade event.
Jamie Pittock, a professor at the Australian National University and a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, said there was a need for a real-time system for auditing the environmental health of the Murray-Darling Basin.
Such a process could also be used to better predict and avoid crises like the Darling River fish kill, he said.
“Tragically, after the Basin Plan was adopted in 2012, governments led by NSW withdrew their funding for the Sustainable River Audit program,” Professor Pittock said.
“While the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office monitors the benefits of delivering parcels of its water onto particular wetlands, no-one is monitoring the health of the whole 5.7 million hectares of freshwater ecosystems in the basin,” he said.
“It is outrageous that $13 billion in public funds are being spent to restore environmental health without any effective, basin-wide monitoring.”
Royal commission move
The Greens, meanwhile, plan to introduce legislation when Parliament returns next month to establish a Royal Commission into what the party calls “the mismanagement of the Murray-Darling Basin”.
“We have spent $13 billion on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan yet the river system is in collapse,” Sarah Hanson-Young, the Greens environment and water spokeswoman, said.
“This plan was put in place to fix the river, and cotton, corruption and climate change is killing it.”
The mass fish kill in the Lower Darling was just the latest “in a long list of problems with the management” of the basin, said Senator Hanson-Young, who also visited Menindee last week.
Labor’s Mr Burke said his party’s priority at this stage was “an urgent scientific review” of what’s happened at Menindee, but added “we haven’t ruled out a bigger enquiry at this stage”.
Peter Hannam writes on environment issues for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.