Taxpayers to pay more for water recovery: report

By Alana Christensen

Taxpayers could be facing a huge bill to recover the controversial 450Gl of ‘up-water’ with a Productivity Commission report expecting it to exceed the budget by as much as $660million.

The five-year review of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan expressed concerns that the current Water for the Environment Special Account (WESA) budget of $1.5billion would be exceeded and noted that shortcomings in the current governance of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan pose a ‘‘significant risk’’ to the basin plan.

Released on Friday, the report slams the Murray-Darling Basin Authority for its ‘‘ineffective processes’’ and ‘‘conflicting roles’’, stating stakeholders are confused and frustrated by the authority’s perceived lack of responsiveness, transparency and accountability.

‘‘Its ability to effectively perform its collaborative service delivery functions (as the agent of governments) and be an independent and credible regulator that ensures compliance with the plan is compromised by these conflicts,’’ the report reads.

‘‘These key deficiencies in institutional and governance arrangements have led to ... key risks not being strategically managed and timelines slipping, implementation being managed through last-minute negotiations as a crisis emerges or a deadline looms.’’

The report also found the size and speed of water purchases had resulted in negative socio-economic impacts in some regional communities and said the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources had not always demonstrated that water recovery had been ‘‘cost-effective’’.

‘‘It has paid a substantial premium above market prices to recover water through infrastructure modernisation, not systematically released information for strategic water purchases acquired by direct negotiation, and not undertaken a comprehensive assessment of benefits and costs of these approaches.’’

Federal Water Minister David Littleproud said the report showed ‘‘significant progress’’ has been made.

‘‘The assessment finds arrangements for environmental water are working well; that there is evidence of improved ecological outcomes, and basin governments have made significant progress in implementing the key elements of the plan.

‘‘The assessment also states there are challenges going forward as we continue to deliver the plan. There is no doubt there is a lot more work to be done by the Commonwealth, the basin states and the MDBA,’’ he said.

‘‘We constantly review and improve our performance and as part of that, we have already acted on several issues raised in the Productivity Commission’s Draft Report in August 2018.

‘‘The Australian Government will consider a response to this report in consultation with basin states and basin communities over coming months.’’

The report made 38 recommendations including the separating of the MDBA’s role into two bodies, calling on the Federal Department of Agriculture and Water Resources to better ensure that water recovery aligns with environmental requirements and provide further assistance to communities which have experienced substantial adverse impacts.