MDBA split, buybacks shelved in basin plan shake-up

By Rodney Woods

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority is set to be split and buybacks shelved under a water policy shake-up unveiled on Friday.

The changes will see the MDBA relieved of its compliance duties, with an Inspector General of Water Compliance appointed to ensure transparency and independence.

Federal Water Minister Keith Pitt said the change would put to bed any impression that the MDBA was structured in a way to "mark its own homework".

“In effect, this will split the MDBA by separating its compliance office into a separate institution,” Mr Pitt said.

The MDBA's compliance office will be merged with the existing Interim Inspector General of Murray-Darling Basin Water Resources office, which is held by former Australian Police Commissioner Mick Keelty.

And while Mr Pitt said buybacks were no longer an option to recover the 450 Gl of ‘up-water’, the change would not be legislated and Mr Pitt said he could make no promises about what would happen if there was a change in government.

The changes are a step in the right direction according to local irrigators and VFF Water Council chair Richard Anderson, but more must be done.

Southern Riverina Irrigators chair Chris Brooks said it was a "victory", but did not think Mr Keelty was the best person to be monitoring compliance.

“He's done nothing on the issues we face and he's not worthy of being in charge of compliance, regardless of his background,” Mr Brooks said.

But the announcements are simply more words according to Northern Victorian Irrigation Communities president Dudley Bryant, who labelled a $30 million investment in more compliance across the basin a "drop in the ocean".

“It's an insult to the areas that have got their metering and compliance correct,” Mr Bryant said.

“If they expect us to believe they are serious, they need to do something serious.”

The announcement has led to hope this could be a ‘line in the sand’ moment for Speak Up chair Shelley Scoullar.

“As a community organisation, it was especially gratifying to get acknowledgement of what we have been saying for many years — that communities are not being listened to,” Mrs Scoullar said.

“We realise there is still a long way to go, however, in the past our frustration has been largely at the refusal of governments – led by the bureaucracy – to accept there were problems which need to be addressed.”

Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville said the heavy lifting had been done by farmers and water for the environment needed to be properly accounted for and protected, while Federal Member for Nicholls Damian Drum said he planned to continue to campaign for the river operations office to be stripped from the MDBA, too.

“It looks like they are going for more transparency and accountability - a single source of truth and we haven't been able to get that under the previous structure,” Mr Drum said.

MDBA chair Sir Angus Houston said they would work with Mr Pitt to finalise the merger and update the 20-year-old hydrology models used by the MDBA, state governments and science community to understand the basin’s rivers and waterways.

Mr Pitt also announced 11 new initiatives worth $234 million to help progress the basin plan and news that a web-based, real-time water information platform would be built to be the single point for communities on water storages, flows and trade information.