Both the federal agriculture minister and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s chief executive officer say the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is on track to succeed, despite warnings it is set to fail.
Federal Agriculture Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and MDBA chief Phillip Glyde were responding to a report released on Monday by the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, that said the basin plan was doomed.
Mr Joyce said against all odds the basin plan was going well and that an independent assessment was under way about putting the additional 450Gl back into the river system — something Labor agrees with.
‘‘If it hurts (communities) too much then that’s against what the legislation says,’’ Mr Joyce said on ABC radio.
‘‘It’s a very contentious issue and we’re going to try and resolve it.’’
Lead author of the report Jamie Pittock said back in November on the ABC’s 7.30 program that the math was simple.
‘‘Every time a parcel of water is taken out of the river system, somewhere in the lower reaches of the rivers there is further environmental degradation,’’ Mr Pittock said.
‘‘It is a value judgment the Australian society has to make about how much environmental damage are we willing to trade off against particular industries like irrigation,’’ he said.
Mr Glyde said he could understand the frustration of the scientists, but said it was only five years into the 12-year plan.
‘‘I think any environmental scientist would recognise you don’t turn around 100 years of overuse of the basin in five years,’’ he said.
The Wentworth Group has been highly critical of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and has now criticised irrigator groups for how they have responded to the plan.
Basin plan 'doomed to fail’
The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists released a report on Monday calling on governments to guarantee recovery of the full 3200Gl stated in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, including the controversial 450Gl of up-water.
Despite admitting there was no evidence as yet that the recovery of water had improved the condition of river systems overall across the Murray-Darling Basin, the scientists warned that without significant change, the plan would fail.
So far two-thirds of the water has been recovered and the group wants more progress on securing the remaining 1200Gl.
‘‘Without substantial changes, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan will fail,’’ the report said.
‘‘Thirteen billion dollars of taxpayers’ money will be spent, communities will be hurt, industries will face ongoing uncertainty and the river systems will continue to degrade.’’
Lead author Jamie Pittock insisted the extra 450Gl was critical to recover enough water to achieve environmental thresholds.
‘‘If we dip below that level, what we’re seeing is the river dying from the bottom up,’’ Mr Pittock told ABC radio.
The report said while there was no evidence overall of improvement, there were local improvements in salinity, water quality and the condition of freshwater species.
‘‘National water reform has delivered secure property rights and water trade which have provided greater flexibility for irrigators to manage risks and adapt with less water,’’ the report said.
It also suggested that irrigator groups were taking advantage of government mistakes and were the ones to blame.
‘‘Well-funded irrigator groups are now using this failure of government as an opportunity to end the purchase of water,’’ the report said.
‘‘As a result of their pressure, water recovery has slowed to a trickle.’’
According to the report, irrigators were not the only groups in the wrong.
‘‘The Commonwealth has made a series of policy and legislative changes which have resulted in the doubling of the cost of water recovery and some states are now attempting to change the rules in a way that will jeopardise basin plan targets.’’
The report proposed setting aside 10 per cent of the remaining $5.9billion, which was fully allocated at $13billion, to help regional communities most affected by water recovery.
The $600million could go towards initiatives to help restructure their economies to adapt to a future with less water.
The report argues water recovery has compounded the many other economic pressures facing rural and regional Australia.