Federal Water Minister David Littleproud has defended the Murray-Darling Basin Plan after a federal scheme to make irrigation more efficient was criticised for favouring cotton and almond farmers.
Under the On-Farm Irrigation Efficiency Program, the Federal Government hands out grants for projects to recover water for the environment.
The ABC’s Four Corners program aired allegations last Monday that the program had benefited major cotton and almond producers, despite being designed to benefit the river system.
The claims sparked a fierce backlash from farming and irrigation groups, along with Mr Littleproud.
‘‘The Coalition is proud to invest in water efficiency projects because they return water to the river system whilst protecting rural jobs and communities rather than decimating them as water buybacks do,’’ Mr Littleproud said.
‘‘It is unfortunate Four Corners did not mention this crucial fact.’’
The ABC reported billions of dollars flowed to corporate irrigators under the program, helping them to plant crops, which required vast amounts of water.
Mr Littleproud said the scheme helped farmers grow more with less water, through projects like replacing leaking drains with modern pipes.
‘‘As a trade-off, the farmer gives up some water entitlement, which goes back to the river and is not available for purchase by irrigators again,’’ Mr Littleproud said.
Labor water spokeswoman Terri Butler described the allegations as explosive, saying the government should explain the details of 72 payments worth more than $1million each made under the program.
‘‘There are no jobs on a dead river,’’ Ms Butler said.
‘‘And you can’t irrigate crops once the water dries up. But the Morrison government is asleep at the wheel.’’
Ms Butler seized on reported revelations that Webster Limited received more than $40 million through the scheme, leading to an expansion of its irrigation operations.
‘‘The Morrison government needs to come clean about whether they have checked that projects are delivering for the health of the river system,’’ she said.
National Farmers’ Federation president Fiona Simson savaged the report, accusing the ABC of reckless and ill-informed reporting and vowing to lodge a formal complaint at the highest level.
‘‘Absolutely no mention was made of the tough scrutiny that applications to access the programs are subject to or the milestone reporting and random ‘spot checks’ that are carried out by the Australian National Audit Office,’’ Ms Simson said.
The government says water efficiency projects have returned 700Gl to the environment, with 95 per cent of the 1500 grants worth less than $1 million.
The Greens have demanded an immediate freeze on money for Murray-Darling water projects until the auditor-general can review payments and water recovery.