‘Must stay course’ on basin plan, as states threaten to review commitments

UNCHARTED: NSW and Victorian water ministers Niall Blair and Lisa Neville have threatened to review their participation as amendments look to be blocked.
UNCHARTED: NSW and Victorian water ministers Niall Blair and Lisa Neville have threatened to review their participation as amendments look to be blocked.

Murray Darling Association national president David Thurley is urging the NSW and Victorian governments to “stay the course” on the basin plan as yet another stalemate looms in the Senate.

Both state water ministers have threatened to review their commitments as the federal Labor Party and the Greens prepare to block an amendment to reduce water recovery targets in the northern basin by 70 billion litres.

Murray Darling Basin Authority chief executive Phillip Glyde defended the changes to the plan as the Greens argue the basin needs to keep the water.

“We identified that the environmental benefits sought through the basin plan could be delivered with 70 billion litres less water recovery – while saving about 200 jobs in local irrigation-dependent communities,” he said.

Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville said the move by Greens and Labor would “put the plan back years”, and that it also cast doubt on whether a bigger amendment, to return 605 billion litres of water to communities in the southern basin, would pass in the Senate.

Cr Thurley leads the advocacy group for local government and said the voting down of the amendments would “not be a good move”.

The Albury councillor said allegations of water theft and mismanagement, forming part of the Greens’ push for a complete audit, needed to be addressed – but states should still stick with the plan.

“Clearly we have issues that have been flagged time and time again; these need to be properly investigated so confidence is put back into the plan,” he said.

“The report by Ken Matthews exposed quite clearly water metering was not being adequately done in NSW.

“Yes, there are things wrong with the plan, it was always going to be the case a grand idea like this was going to run into difficulties.

“That’s not going to be solved by grandstanding, but by people sitting down together … for states to be saying ‘we’ll pull out’, is not helpful.”

The MDA has also spoken out against calls to stop spending on some water recovery projects until the results of current expenditure have been audited.

As an offset to the adjustment of sustainable diversion limit targets, a package of 37 projects to improve water efficiency were approved by the MDBA.

Twelve academics who signed the ‘Murray Darling Basin Declaration’ on Monday have stated the basin remains in a poor state despite billions of dollars of investment in water recovery infrastructure projects.

Aside from putting infrastructure works on hold, the group has called for the establishment of an independent body to monitor the delivery of the Water Act (2007).

“Four billion dollars has been spent on subsidies for irrigation infrastructure by governments over the past decade yet we do not have adequate measures of what this does to stream flows,” said Australian National University Professor Quentin Grafton.

Cr Thurley said the MDA “would be deeply concerned about the economic impact of any halt to publicly funded water recovery associated with irrigation infrastructure”.

Yes, there are things wrong with the plan, it was always going to be the case a grand idea like this was going to run into difficulties

MDA president David Thurley

“The problem is, people have been making changes as the plan’s rolling out, and to be told halfway through it’s ending can be devastating,” he said.

“A blanket stop would seem to me, a crazy thing to do.

“I think local irrigators have every right to be concerned, because generally speaking they have done extremely well, they have conformed with the requirements of the plan and have taken hits along the Murray, in terms of water buy-backs.

“We’ve dealt with the hard times – now other people need to face up to the hard times.”

The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder manages the water acquired through federal investment in water-saving infrastructure and buy-backs.

A pilot program placing engagement officers in regional areas to work with residents on projects involving environmental water concluded last year and six permanent roles were established, including a new position based in Wodonga.

Anthony Wilson is now three months into the role.

LOCAL LINK: Anthony Wilson has started in a new role based in Wodonga as engagement officer for the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder. A reference group with irrigators and other stakeholders to work on water projects will meet quarterly. Picture: MARK JESSER

LOCAL LINK: Anthony Wilson has started in a new role based in Wodonga as engagement officer for the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder. A reference group with irrigators and other stakeholders to work on water projects will meet quarterly. Picture: MARK JESSER

“We work closely with irrigators and we’ve got a reference group that they’re represented on,” he said.

“That group has stakeholders from other interested community groups – wetlands, farmers, fishing clubs, everyone’s got a stake in developing projects.

“The main point of the role being based in a regional area is that anyone who has concerns or are proactive looking at possible projects using Commonwealth environment water, can contact me.”

A further 450 billion litres for environmental water must be returned to the basin through on and off-farm works by 2024, but only without negative social or economic impacts.

The federal government commissioned Ernst and Young to analyse how to achieve this, and the consultants handed down their 300-page report last month.

They found “sufficient evidence the 450 billion litres can likely be recovered from water efficiency projects on a neutral or positive socio-economic basis”.

Community consultation as part of the analysis identified a lack of trust within communities and “consultation fatigue” in regional communities, with a range of government bodies working separately, and it was recommended “that the program begin with two-way engagement with community and industry leaders to overcome this”.

The delivery of the efficiency measures could be thrown out the window if states do hold true to their threat to withdraw in part, or in full from the basin plan.

Mr Glyde, in responding to the Murray Darling Declaration, said halting the implementation of the basin plan would risk returning the basin “to a state of uncertainty and peril”.

“There is clear evidence of positive local-scale environmental outcomes … these benefits will continue to grow as the implementation of the plan continues,” he said.

“As the current debate about the future of the plan rages, I urge people to remember what’s at stake.

“Limits on water take become legally binding in mid-2019.  

“I believe to abandon the plan now, before there has been a chance to realise the full extent of its benefits, would be a disaster.

“We must stay the course.”