The Murray Darling Basin Plan has been subjected to countless reviews and inquiries since its inception, but the message from irrigators remains clear
– we cannot abandon the plan.
A recent inquiry by the Murray Darling Basin Authority recommended slashing the water recovery target by 70 gigalitres (GL) – 18 per cent – to lessen the
impact on irrigation communities.
Such a move has been supported by farmers, but it has been bitterly opposed by environmental groups and the Greens, who claim the Basin Plan is failing
to deliver for the environment.
The Greens have already succeeded in having the proposed changes to the federal Water Act disallowed by the Senate, but the issue is expected
to return to the upper house on May 7 and could threaten the entire Plan.
This will surely inflame tensions with Victoria and NSW. The two states have already flagged a willingness to pull the plug on the Basin Plan if the disallowance
motion gets through, leaving the whole show on the brink of collapse.
An emotional response would only be a disaster for irrigation communities along the east coast. We need our political leaders to come back to the table
in good faith with a vision to act on behalf of the whole community.
The Basin Plan is flexible — water should be able to come from a range of projects and alternative arrangements agreed by the States. It does not have
to be recovered solely from irrigators through on-farm projects. The key is that the ‘upwater’ is found without negative social or economic impacts
to communities along the river.
Australian Dairy Farmers has strongly advocated for the recovery of 605GL in offsets and would like to see the Basin states deliver the full 605GL to be
sure no further water is recovered from irrigators.
ADF and the Australian Dairy Industry Council have remained firm in advocating to halt Federal Government water buybacks at 1500 GL and urging the Government
to make clear that it will not seek to recover the additional 450GL if it would harm our farming communities.
The Government is restricted by the Water Act from purchasing more than 1500 GL. It has so far purchased around 1160 GL and can still purchase
340GL. But the 450GL of upwater is exempt from the restriction, meaning that about 790GL can still be bought by the Government.
Alternatively, the upwater can include entitlements given up by farmers in return for Federal funding of on-farm upgrades. Either way, we are faced with
the prospect of more water being ripped from productive agricultural use.
All states agreed to the offsets as a mechanism for achieving the goals of the plan. No State should be walking away from that agreed process now. The
offsets will deliver better environmental outcomes than merely sending more water down the river and hoping for the best.
The process is now being complicated further by a South Australian Royal Commission into the Plan, which intends to invite witnesses to attend formal hearings
from all four Basin states.
It is now likely this could change with the election last month of a new government in South Australia. The Australian Government is understood to be encouraging
SA Premier Steven Marshall to wind back the Royal Commission’s terms of reference.
This is only the latest in a series of reviews and inquiries that have for more than five years plagued the Basin Plan. Running concurrently with the Royal
Commission is a federally funded review which will, again, look at the effectiveness of the Plan.
We’re relying on all parties to reaffirm their commitment to the Basin Plan and reassure us that in retaining control of water, they are operating in good
faith. It’s time to quit the review process and continue with the agreed course.
The Plan will never be able to satisfy all parties equally. But it is vital we stick to the original goal and ensure the 2750GL target is delivered as
agreed, in part through 605GL in environmental offsets.