Opponents of releasing more water into the Murray Darling river system for environmental purposes have suffered a defeat.
A new independent report says the plan to add 450 gigalitres (GL) annually to the 2750 GL currently released will be good for the environment and have overall socioeconomic benefits. The 300 page report was commissioned by the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council last year.
The finding has been welcomed by South Australia, which says the extra water is the bare minimum needed to keep its end of the river system viable. The return of the extra 450 GL was opposed by upriver states NSW, Victoria and Queensland, and by former Water Minister, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, who said he thought it was impossible.
The report was a compromise – the upstream states agreed to return the water if an independent report said there was no overall socioeconomic disadvantage. Now that the report has said that, they have little choice but to agree.
New Federal Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources David Littleproud said the report is a pathway to reviving the Murray Darling Basin Plan, which has suffered many attacks in recent months and been the subject of acrimonious debate between states and the various elements in the agricultural community.
Mr Littleproud said the report follows four months of extensive community and stakeholder consultations across the Basin. He said the report drew on other studies on the social and economic impacts of water efficiency measures, including the effects of off- and on-farm water infrastructure investment and water recovery programs.
“The EY study clearly acknowledges governments need to work with communities, irrigators and industry sectors to ensure that efficiency measures have neutral or positive social and economic outcomes—this is critical to better understanding the impacts of water efficiency measures,” he said.
“All Basin governments agreed to the plan, and I believe this report provides us with a pathway to delivering it. It identifies a range of off-farm and urban water efficiency measures which can safely deliver some water savings without negative social or economic impacts.
“I am keen to work with Basin states to begin implementing many of these efficiency measures within the next few months. We can lay out the pathway to do this when the Ministerial Council meets in April this year.
“I will not play politics with this. Political fighting creates uncertainty which affects the lives of real people. I’ve sat around farmers’ kitchen tables and seen the strain in their eyes caused by uncertainty. The tiredness caused by working long hours and not knowing what’s around the corner. What farmers, rural businesses and communities need most is certainty and to see that we are nearing the light at the end of the tunnel.”
But the debate is not over. The upstream states are certain to oppose the plan at the next intergovernmental meeting, due in April.
The report itself says that more work needs to be done to better understand and monitor the impacts of water efficiency measures. “The study gives us a reference point for a frank, respectful and constructive discussion on efficiency measures and to get cracking on savings which can be made now without social or economic impacts,” said Mr Littleproud.
“We have all agreed to the Basin Plan. It is important we all act maturely and treat those communities most directly affected in the Basin Plan with the respect they deserve, the respect of certainty.
“I remain committed to delivering the plan to which all Basin governments agreed, the 450 GL and delivering efficiency measures without negative social or economic impacts.”
The report is available here. The key finding:
“From the analysis and discussions undertaken, and assuming the recommendations in the report are implemented, there is sufficient evidence the 450 GL can likely be recovered from water efficiency projects on a neutral or positive socioeconomic basis.”
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