Mum's the Word || Managing water proving a monstrous task

TOO MUCH: There are enough demands on our waterways without throwing in people's desire to make a quick buck.
TOO MUCH: There are enough demands on our waterways without throwing in people's desire to make a quick buck.

Something feels off about making money from water. It is such a fundamental basic need in the community and so many of the crops we grow rely on irrigation.

There's a line in the 1999 movie The Mummy in which star Brendan Fraser's character comments that "these men are desert people. They value water, not gold".

Now, here in Australia we may not be battling a risen-from-the-grave immortal monster in the hunt for treasure, but balancing the competing interests in our water systems may prove a tougher task.

The Australian this week reported that the Murray-Darling river system "faces catastrophe this summer because the federal body in charge of its health does not have any water available to conduct major environmental flows in the north of the basin".

At the same time, NSW Agriculture Minister Adam Marshall has been talking up what has been described as the largest-ever fish rescue and restocking program in the Darling River at Menindee ahead of "an expected summer of horror fish kills".

"We're staring down the barrel of a potential fish Armageddon, which is why we're wasting little time rolling out this unprecedented action," he said.

We know the drought has taken a catastrophic toll on parts of NSW and Queensland. We cannot control the weather, but we can certainly be asking some questions about the way water in this country has been managed.

Earlier this month Mick Keelty, who has recently been appointed as inspector-general for the Murray-Darling Basin, was quoted as saying corruption scandals were eroding trust in the $13 billion plan to recover water for the environment.

"When I started this role we had a royal commission running in South Australia, we have a current investigation by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption that is yet to be completed, and there are prosecutions underway in Queensland," he told the ABC.

Mr Keelty pointed out that the state and federal departments tasked with ensuring compliance lacked effective processes for handling complaints.

The complexity of the system made it more difficult to ensure rules were followed, he told the ABC.

"If you look at the number of laws and policies, and even the number of little departments inside bigger departments who have some sort of role or responsibility here, it actually sets itself up for poor compliance."

Mr Keelty said that with no end to the drought in sight, water sharing in the basin would continue to be controversial.

"This summer is shaping up to be even worse than last summer," he said.

It would be easy to think that managing the Murray-Darling Basin and our other major river systems would be the - admittedly complicated - juggle between the needs of water users and those of the environment, but unfortunately, someone has chucked another enormous spanner in the works: Money.

In Australia, water rights and land ownership have been separated. One figure I've seen quoted suggests that one in seven water trades are by companies or individuals who don't own land.

Something feels off about making money from water. It is such a fundamental basic need in the community and so many of the crops we grow rely on irrigation.

Helen Dalton, the NSW state Member for Murray, has been pushing for greater transparency surrounding the ownership of water rights.

She is calling for politicians' pecuniary interest registers to be changed so that water rights ownership has to be declared, and she wants to see a national register of exactly who owns Australia's water.

Ms Dalton has a point.

It is more than enough that water management authorities have to juggle environmental and irrigation needs, for example. Throwing profiteering into the mix is actually stomach-turning.

The Australian reported that investors were hoarding water, forcing up the price and putting it beyond the reach of irrigators - the people who are trying to grow food to feed this country. Surely, there are enough ways to turn a quick buck in this country without having to actually horde water?

I wish Mr Keelty luck in his new Murray-Darling role, because let's face it, battling a supernatural evil mummy able to summon up the 10 plagues of Egypt looks easy in comparison to fixing water issues.