No more buybacks promise must be legislated, say irrigators

By Rodney Woods

Water buybacks will be shelved under a water policy shake-up, but Federal Water Minister Keith Pitt remains committed to the 450Gl of "up-water" under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Speaking with the Farm Writers’ Association of NSW, Mr Pitt reaffirmed the Federal Government's commitment to the "up-water", but said buybacks would not be an option and that off-farm water projects would now be relied on.

It comes after the First Review of the Water for the Environment Special Account found recovery of the "up-water" by the June 2024 deadline is unrealistic and just 60Gl of the total 450Gl total could feasibly be recovered by 2024.

The $1.775 billion in funding set aside for projects and water recovery would pay for just one-third of the 450Gl according to the panel.

Mr Pitt labelled the report "a warning to all basin governments".

“We need to adjust our approaches, we need to re-double our efforts because failure just prolongs the uncertainty that basin communities face,” Mr Pitt said.

“I'm not about to call an early end to the game just because we're behind on the scoreboard.

“My expectation is that my department and the states step up and minimise the gap between our goals and our landing.

“There is plenty of time between now and June 2024 to consider our progress and refresh our thinking.

“Now is not the time to give up.”

But Victoria Water Minister Lisa Neville said northern Victorian irrigators had already paid the price.

“We know communities in northern Victoria have suffered very serious socio-economic impacts from water buybacks – loss of productive water from farms, loss of jobs, loss of economic activity and associated social impacts,” Ms Neville said.

“The socio-economic test will still apply for infrastructure projects to recover water – my position has always been that infrastructure projects that reduce system losses are the best way to recover water for the environment.”

While the emphasis on off-farm efficiencies instead of buybacks has been welcomed, Northern Victorian Irrigation Communities president Dudley Bryant said it must be put in writing, a view echoed by VFF president David Jochinke.

“I take the Minister’s comments at face value, but I won’t sleep soundly until I see no more buybacks in an Act of Parliament,” Mr Jochinke said.