Water curbs fear in plan to help river

Melbourne faces more severe water restrictions if the State Government accepts a recommendation to release massive amounts of water from the city's main storage to help the ailing Thomson River.

In a report to be handed to the State Government today, a ministerial taskforce has recommended that 25,000 million litres be released yearly from the Thomson Reservoir.

This is double Melbourne Water's annual water saving target and about half what the city has saved since water restrictions started in November 2002.

If Environment Minister John Thwaites accepts the report's recommendations, Melbourne Water will be forced to reassess its future supply - already threatened by population growth, climate change and drought - and possibly bring forward projects such as recommissioning the Tarago Reservoir.

In its report, the taskforce acknowledges that returning water to the Thomson River will have "large social and economic impacts"for Gippsland irrigators as well as Melbourne water users.

It says the Thomson Dam - which supplies about half the city's water - may take longer to recover from drought, which could spark more severe water restrictions.

The Thomson River, which flows to the Gippsland Lakes, has been at the heart of a city-versus-country dispute since it was dammed 20 years ago. It is now one of the state's most stressed rivers.

The latest scientific report on the river's health - one of 11 such studies over 20 years - said the Thomson needed 47,000 million litres returned to be healthy.

The taskforce endorsed the scientific report, saying future planning should aim to return around 40,000 million litres to the river. But as a first step, it recommended 25,000 million litres over five to six years.

After that, if monitoring had shown the river had not improved, the scientific recommendation should be put in place, said taskforce chairman Llew Vale.

Although Melburnians would be most affected if the recommendations were accepted, irrigators in Gippsland also suffer consequences, Mr Vale said. "The community needs to find ways to save this water."

Environment Victoria said the report offered a "medium-term hope"for the river but it was disappointed that the recommendations fell short of what scientists said the river needed.

- Businessman Richard Pratt yesterday revealed details of his pledge to help save water by announcing his Visy Industries would provide $100 million to help farmers install more efficient irrigation systems. In an alliance between Pratt Water and finance group Esanda, farmers will have access to loans for water-saving technologies.

- with Melissa Marino

By Melissa Fyfe [The Age]
Environment Reporter
February 4, 2004

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