Putting the downstream state of South Australia on notice, Victoria and NSW are banding together to argue they won’t permit further water recovery under the Murray Darling Basin Plan from their jurisdiction if it impacts agricultural production or local economies.
Reports that the Basin Plan is in jeopardy may be overstating the recent interstate controversies, given the legislative heavy lifting required to overturn the reforms, but the stage is set for a determined push from upstream states to invest in works to boost environmental outcomes, without recovering water from irrigation.
Two issues are troubling the largest irrigation states – the potential for another round of water buybacks to push towards the Plan’s 2750 gigalitre environmental water target; and a sleeping clause for 450GL of “upwater” for South Australia.
NSW Minister Niall Blair said he has been “unashamedly clear” that further community impacts from water recovery won’t be tolerated under the Basin Plan, comments echoed by his Victorian counterpart.
The Basin reforms are “all about outcomes,” Mr Blair said.
“Fixations on numbers is flawed science. We should be looking at how to achieve environmental outcomes through complimentary measures.”
Mr Blair backs a range of measures, such as works to prevent releases of unnaturally cold water from deep dams – which can harm fish breeding and habitat, the carp herpes virus to reduce the pest’s numbers or riparian environments.
To bolster their case, the Southern Basin states will compile a report from independent advice on potential economic impacts and how the environmental objectives of the Basin Plan can be achieved without further water recovery.
The MDBA recently committed to deliver a report on the impacts of further water recovery in the Southern Basin, which has left irrigators and community groups questioning why it wasn’t done earlier, given 690GL of the 1048GL target has already been recovered from Southern NSW.
“We want direct input. NSW has agreed with Victoria to put a body of work together so the views of our communities are fed into process,” Mr Blair said.
He welcomed the 70GL reduction to water recovery in the Northern Basin, announced by the Basin Authority this week.
But “NSW has been over-recovered”, and he remained cautious about the “devil in the detail” of how the northern water recovery could be recovered.
NSW Irrigators chief executive Mark McKenzie hit out at SA’s demands, saying its selfishness “over its obsession with getting more water through the Murray Mouth at any cost has been laid absolutely bare, for all to see.”