By Boyd Champness

THE debate over returning additional water flows to the Snowy River in eastern Victoria has turned into a bitter interstate row.

Federal Environment Minister, Senator Robert Hill, has claimed there are other rivers in more urgent need of restoration than the Snowy.

Senator Hill, a South Australian, said the pressing issue of national interest was the salinity crisis in the Murray River.

The salinity threatens agricultural productivity and Adelaides water supply – the Murray being Adelaides chief source of water.

A recent Federal Government report said the crisis in the Murray was so severe that its waters would be undrinkable two years out of four within 20 years if flows were not boosted.

“The issue is, if water can be found as a result of (irrigation) efficiencies, should it be returned to the Murray or the Snowy?” Senator Hill posed the question in The Weekly Times.

A spokesman said Senator Hill would announce a new environmental impact assessment on the Murray River, which would examine the impact of taking water from the Murray for the Snowy.

But Senator Hills comments prompted sharp criticism from Victorian Premier Steve Bracks and Snowy River supporters.

Mr Bracks said Senator Hill should remember he was Environment Minister for the whole of Australia and not just his home state.

Mr Bracks told The Age newspaper that New South Wales and Victoria were negotiating for a better environmental outcome for all rivers affected by the Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme.

It would be irresponsible for a federal minister to prefer one region over another, he said.

Senator Hill described Mr Bracks attack as extraordinary, saying the debate had been one-sided up until now, with little discussion on whether water saved by infrastructure improvements would be better used to dilute salinity in the Murray River than restore the Snowy.

“If he (Mr Bracks) doesnt understand the serious environmental issues facing the Murray and the economic consequences associated with them, then he might have to take some after-hours studies,” Senator Hill told the newspaper.

According to The Age, more than 99% of the Snowy Rivers headwaters are diverted through the Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme and released into the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers for irrigation.

The campaign to restore an environmental flow to the Snowy is centred on recovering some of the estimated 3000 gigalitres lost through evaporation and leakage from open irrigation channels.

Mr Bracks told The Age there was no suggestion the Snowy would be restored by reducing the water available to the Murray River for irrigators.

The problem facing Steve Bracks and his Victorian Labor Party Government is that he won the crucial support of East Gippsland Independent MP, Craig Ingram.

This allowed him to form government, on the premise that he would do his upmost to restore 28% of the Snowys original water flows.

Salinity is Australias worst legacy of agricultural development. Large-scale clearing and flawed agricultural practices have allowed water tables to rise, bringing poisonous salt with it.

The CSIRO – the Federal Governments chief scientific research body – estimates 2.5 million hectares (over 6m acres) of land in Australia is salt-affected and the figure could climb to 15 million hectares by 2050.