Report stirs up water debate

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Victorian Water Minister Harriet Shing (right) with Goulburn-Murray Water chair Diane James on a water project site at Waaia on July 19.

A new ‘roadmap’ report produced by the Victorian Government and without water stakeholder consultation has shaken up the debate over Traditional Owner access to water.

The 86-page Water is Life report outlines possible ways that Indigenous communities can get access to water ownership and exercise more control and management over waterways.

Organisations including the VFF were not consulted about the draft document, which was placed on the DELWP website without public announcement recently.

However, Victorian Water Minister Harriet Shing told Country News water stakeholders would be consulted in the future development of the plan.

VFF Water Council chair Andrew Leahy criticised the government for not consulting with water stakeholders in the development of the paper.

He pointed to statements in the paper saying that all water belonged to Traditional Owners and claims that Indigenous people wanted to take over management of the waterways.

He said water stakeholders had been given no say in the development of this paper, as distinct from other major policy changes which irrigators have worked through in the past.

Mr Leahy is seeking a meeting with Ms Shing.

Victoria’s catchment management authorities have also been rattled by an anonymous quotation highlighted in the report, which says: “Our aspiration is to take over the CMAs’ responsibility, and therefore have final say on how, where and when environmental water is delivered and managed, which reflects the need for environmental and cultural uses of water to be managed side by side”.

Asked about this reference, Ms Shing said the Water Is Life document is a consultation draft that is yet to be finalised and Traditional Owner quotes were included to reflect a range of their aspirations around water management.

“Catchment management authorities will continue to fulfil their important role working with Traditional Owners, partners and stakeholders in the wider community to manage healthy and productive waterways,” Ms Shing said.

She said the Water is Life document was a process of engagement with First Nation communities.

“This is about contributing towards the discussion of self determination ... Traditional Owners are at the centre of an important discussion on how we strike the careful balance between a recognition of the priorities and rights of existing entitlement holders against the identity of water for the oldest continuous culture.

“It demands a long-term discussion.

“It is an exceptional complex policy challenge, but also an exceptionally important process to get right.

“We want Traditional Owners to be able to have conversations and discussions to reach decisions on how they can have their needs met.”

Asked if irrigators would have to give up water entitlements to Traditional Owners, Ms Shing said “no”.

She said water could be obtained through better access to manufactured water, savings being generated and opportunities through the market, without reducing the consumptive pool.

“This is not about taking away the rights of existing entitlement holders,” Ms Shing said.

“This is not about payment by irrigators of costs of ownership for Traditional Owners.

“This is not about a buyback process.”