PRESSURE is being applied to fresh political talks on how to advance the Murray Darling Basin Plan, by farming and environmental groups.
The Murray Darling Basin Ministerial Council forum is meeting today at Mildura in north-west Victoria, chaired by Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce.
A forum of the ministers held late last year saw SA Water Minister Ian Hunter rebuked for using offensive language during tense talks about challenges associated with delivering an additional 450 gigalitres of environmental water-flows to his home state in the plan, while avoiding damaging social and economic impacts on farm communities.
Assistant Water Resources and Agriculture Minister Senator Anne Ruston was at the dinner meeting last November and made a formal complaint afterwards to the SA Premier Jay Weatherill, about Mr Hunter's behaviour.
That altercation escalated the issue to a meeting in Canberra of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) in December where Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said by April next year, a “credible and balanced pathway” would need to be provided to COAG on the Basin plan’s implementation, as agreed in 2012.
A statement from that COAG forum said the Murray-Darling Basin was of vital economic and environmental significance to a large part of Australia and it was “critical” the Basin plan be implemented on time and in full.
It said Murray-Darling Basin issues would be dealt with through a regular COAG side meeting of first ministers of Basin jurisdictions.
The plan to be submitted to COAG by April 2017 must provide a credible and balanced pathway to implement the Basin plan package, agreed to in 2012, including supply measures to offset its water recovery target of 2750GLs by 2019, using the Sustainable Diversion Limits adjustment mechanism.
It must also include constraints measures to address impediments to delivering environmental water and efficiency measures to recover the additional 450GLs by 2024, consistent with the Basin Plan’s legal requirement to achieve neutral or improved socio-economic outcomes.
Last night, National Farmers’ Federation Vice President Les Gordon attended a roundtable of State and Commonwealth Water Ministers, ahead of the Ministerial Council meeting.
Mr Gordon said that NFF’s message to water ministers was clear, “get on with the job of implementing the Basin plan to give farmers, industries and communities certainty for the future”.
But he said that should be done in a way that avoids inflicting further negative impacts on communities and industries.
“It’s time for Ministers to shift their focus from a debate about purely the volume of water to be recovered from productive agriculture, to a debate about how we deliver the outcomes that the plan was intended in achieve,” he said.
“Key to this is the need for a sensible negotiation around the Sustainable Diversion Limit adjustments.
“The ‘adjustment mechanism’ in the Basin Plan enables Ministers to make decisions to deliver better and more efficient environmental outcomes, so long as these will have neutral or improved socio-economic impacts.”
Mr Gordon said independent analysis of impacts in the Goulburn Murray Irrigation District in Victoria released last year highlighted that reduced water availability was already costing $550 million a year in lost regional production, with impacts likely to effectively double if Ministers didn't get the adjustment mechanism right.
He said this week, NSW Minister Niall Blair released an independent report on the ‘socio-economic neutrality test’ that demonstrated the need for an alternative approach to enable the broad-range of costs and benefits of any additional water recovery to be systematically examined.
“It is crucial that Ministers have a detailed and real conversation about what can and can’t be delivered in terms of flow rates,” he said.
Mr Gordon said the NFF was hopeful ministers would formally acknowledge the advice of the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) in relation to the Northern Basin Review.
“While we don’t think the Authority has gone far enough in lowering the recovery target from 390GL to 320GL, we do support their recommendation that governments should be investing in non-flow measures to improve environmental outcomes,” he said.
“We also strongly support the MDBA’s view that the proposed changes to the recovery target in the Northern Basin will have no material impact on the southern connected system.
“Farmers and irrigation communities in the Murray-Darling Basin have been subjected to a continuous process of water reform for more than two decades.
“At this meeting, Ministers must agree on the path to finally put this plan to bed and let us get on with the job of producing quality food and fibre.”
NSW Farmers’ Association President Derek Schoen said the water ministers must focus on delivering better and more efficient triple bottom line outcomes in negotiating the finalisation of Basin limits adjustments.
“The approach of just adding water is not the answer to improving our rivers,” he said.
“The government needs to focus on complimentary, non-flow measures that respond to the needs of the Basin's ecosystems, such as carp control and addressing cold water pollution.
“We are calling for balanced and reasonable consideration of all available evidence by Ministers.
“The consequences for regional communities and farming families of the decisions which will be made must be at the forefront of any plan going forward.”
Representatives of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Australian Floodplain Association, Murray & Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations and Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations also participated in the round table discussion.
They said the meeting must respond to COAG’s request for “a credible and balanced pathway” to implement the Basin plan, including efficiency measures to recover an additional 450GLsl.
The delegation said it also opposed proposed increases to the amount of water that can be taken from underground aquifers and rivers in the Northern Basin.
They also called on ministers to recommit to a healthy Murray-Darling Basin and the recovery of 3200GLs of environmental water.
Australian Conservation Foundation Healthy Ecosystems Manager Jono La Nauze said the Prime Minister and Premiers have made it clear – through COAG – that they expected the Basin Plan to be implemented in full and on time.
But he said both the Victorian and NSW water ministers were “going out of their way to obstruct and undermine the plan”.
At last year’s COAG meeting, Mr Turnbull said “really good projects” were needed to deliver the 450GLs through water efficiency measures that had either a neutral or positive socioeconomic impact on communities where the water came from.
He said COAG had now asked the states to bring forward projects to support that aim, with funding allocated to support it.
But Mr Turnbull said the “whole object” of the Basin Plan, dating back through its history when John Howard was Prime Minister and when he was water minister, was to invest in water efficiency measures - both off farm and on farm.
He said that approach would enable farmers to “produce as much or more food and fibre with less water so that it would be a win-win for farmers and the communities that they support and the environment”.
“Nothing to do with water is easy - but it is very clear…we all want to make it work,” he said.
“But we've got to achieve those great projects on and off farm that get that win-win.”