Lake Albert-Coorong Connector

I seek leave to make a brief explanation before directing a question to the Minister for Water and the River Murray regarding the Lake Albert-Coorong connector.

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK: The Ernst & Young report on the cost-benefit analysis of proposed Lake Albert management actions from February 2014 was commissioned by DEWNR to conduct an economic cost-benefit analysis on proposed management actions aimed at reducing current salinity levels and improving the long-term sustainability of the region.

Whilst the report determined that irrigated land was a key variable in determining the economic value on the installation of the connector, the report also acknowledges that it may result in an economic benefit to the Coorong. On page 7 it states that 'further hydrological modelling and research is required'. My question to the minister is: will the minister consider conducting further research into this project or has he written it off as something he will not even consider?
The Hon. I.K. HUNTER  (Minister for Sustainability, Environment and Conservation, Minister for Water and the River Murray, Minister for Climate Change)  ( 14:20 :20 ): I thank the honourable member for her most important question. As I have said in this place previously, a scoping study investigated potential solutions to manage the Lake Albert salinity levels. That scoping study has been released. The study was carried out after consultation with the community reference group and included the investigation of five options. Of these five options the study recommended the preferred practice of lake cycling.

The study also recommended further investigation of a temporary reset pumping policy to reset salinity in Lake Albert should it be required into the future. Despite all the scientific and environmental modelling that went into this work, as well as the community engagement and consultation that was undertaken, some members of the opposition continue to ignore the studies, responses and facts that were presented in the document. It is another example, of course, of members of the opposition ignoring science and wanting to play politics, but that seems to be just the order of the day for them.
The Hon. K.J. Maher: Their modus operandi.

An honourable member interjecting: 
The Hon. I.K. HUNTER: Indeed it does—if you're going to Latin, as the Hon. Kyam Maher obviously does.
The Hon. G.E. Gago: He speaks many languages.

An honourable member interjecting: 
The Hon. I.K. HUNTER: He does. For the benefit of those members of the opposition who are confused by the science and community consultation that underpinned the study, I would like to briefly outline it again. The effective long-term management of the Coorong, Lower Lakes, Murray Mouth region remains a priority for this government. Whilst they are declining, I advise that salinity levels in Lake Albert remain above the historic average of approximately 1,500 EC. At the minute, the average salinity at March 2015 was approximately 2,450 EC, compared to 2,563 EC in January of last year. More data is about to come to me about that. I understand it has dropped somewhat—another amount.

It is worth remembering that at the height of the drought salinity in Lake Albert exceeded 20,000 EC. In November 2012 funding of up to $740,000 was approved for a study into the long-term management of water quality issues in Lake Albert and the Narrows at Narrung. At the completion of the project in November 2014, approximately $650,000 of the budgeted $740,000 had been spent on this study, I am advised. This funding has come from the $137 million Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth Recovery Project.

The Lake Albert scoping study commenced in January 2013 with the aim of identifying potential management actions to sustain water quality and ecological health in Lake Albert under different climate scenarios over the longer term. The study considered management actions assuming the Basin Plan's 2,750 gigalitres of baseline recovery scenario: the base case of doing nothing; dredging the Narrows; removal and modification of the Narrung causeway; permanent water regulating structures in the Narrung Narrows; a Coorong connector, be it a permanent pipe or a channel or some sort of other mechanism, including temporary reset pumping; and, of course, lake cycling.

These considerations included those suggestions by the Meningie and Narrung Lakes Irrigators Association in its five-point plan for the management of Lake Albert. The project included a literature review, a community requirements study, a legislative review, qualitative engineering investigation, modelling studies, on-ground investigations, engineering feasibility, and a cost-benefit analysis.

The options paper involved extensive consultation, including the development of a community requirement study undertaken by an independent market research company to capture community opinion on potential management actions and their requirements regarding the management of Lake Albert.

Cultural considerations of the proposed management actions were also taken into account and a number of discussion forums were held with the Ngarrindjeri in the formation of its position paper. The options paper was publicly released on 1 September 2014 and it recommended lake cycling as the most feasible option for managing Lake Albert's salinity.

The options paper does not support a permanent Coorong connector due to the anticipated costs and the time frame required to deliver benefits when compared to the lake cycling option. Other engineering solutions were also discounted due to those options being either cost prohibitive or not technically feasible. The local and state irrigation community has often raised the construction of a connector as its preferred option and has raised concerns over the lake's cycling option.

As I said, the project has been connecting with a broad base of contributors and stakeholders through its engagement plan via a steering committee comprising state and Australian government representatives, a technical project advisory group, and a community reference group, which included representation from the Meningie Narrung Lakes Irrigators Association, the Coorong District Council, local community members and the Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority. All of these groups were actively involved in the development and evaluation of the preferred management actions, and proactive engagement with the broader Meningie Narrung Lakes Irrigators Association has been ongoing throughout the project.

A site visit was conducted with tribal owners of the River Murray, Coorong, Lakes and the Sea Inc., and the project manager has kept this group updated on progress. The Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth Recovery Project community advisory panel has been regularly updated on the project's developments. Consultation has occurred with the Murray-Darling Basin Association and Regional Development Australia, Murraylands and Riverland.

During 2013, discussion forums were held with the local community and a number of media releases have been prepared to inform the community of the project's progress. The project outcomes and the options paper were communicated with key stakeholders and a follow-up briefing was provided to the broader interested community on 29 October last year addressing community concerns and questions raised since the release of the options paper and following the initial briefings. Community representatives at this meeting developed a set of resolutions for my consideration to which, I believe, I have responded.

In a nutshell, a vast amount of work, technical and engagement, has happened in relation to this inquiry. The report has been handed up and I endorse the outcome of the report. I see no need whatsoever to go to another further inquiry whilst we work on the preferred solution which is lake cycling.