Basin water recovery a sensitive topic

By Geoff Adams

Finding the extra 450 Gl of "up-water" for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan continues to be a politically sensitive goal.

The figure was set after the basin plan was agreed on at 2750 Gl, and has since been a point of controversy as the 450 Gl requirement comes with a qualification that it cannot be at the cost of negative socio-economic impacts.

Irrigators feared the 450 Gl would be largely drawn out of existing entitlements and have argued that it should be abandoned as a further loss of water would clearly impact on rural communities.

The VFF has consistently argued that the 450 Gl is unachievable and should be abandoned.

VFF water policy chairman Richard Anderson said recent government announcements that buy-backs were off the table were somewhat re-assuring, but no political leaders were bold enough to abandon the 450 Gl goal.

Federal Water Minister Keith Pitt had acknowledged that the 450 Gl could not be achieved in the previously announced timeframe.

“He has not abandoned it at all,” Mr Anderson said.

He said governments appeared to be too sensitive to political influence from South Australia to reach the point of actually committing to scrap the 450 Gl measure.

A recently released assessment of social and economic conditions in the basin recognised that current water market prices and policy settings mean it is unlikely that the $1.7 billion allocated through the Water for Environmental Special Account would be enough to recover the 450 Gl of up-water.

The Sefton report says that under current levels of horticultural development, assuming acceleration of climate change and the planned recovery of 450 Gl, modelling by ABARES suggests that water use by the dairy and rice sectors could decline by as much as 55 per cent and 32 per cent respectively in the very dry years.

“This would mean further water recovery would be particularly risky for those communities dependent on these irrigation enterprises in the central River Murray region,” the report says.

“The panel’s commissioned work clearly shows that recovering more consumptive irrigation water will have significant negative impacts for some regional basin communities, including NSW Murray and northern Victoria.

“It may also have significant negative impacts in the northern basin communities where water recovery is likely to be targeted. These impacts will be additional to those that these communities have already incurred.

“While we acknowledge benefits from past recovery, the panel has significant concerns about the depth and distribution of past impacts in rural and regional basin communities and considers that the pace of water reform needs to be changed.

“If a decision is made to slow the pace of planned further water recovery to beyond 2024, all basin governments must recommit to the shared vision of achieving recovery targets over the longer term and put in place achievable milestones and trigger points for action,” the Sefton report found.