FARMERS have welcomed plans to conduct independent analysis of the social and economic impacts of a controversial aspect of the Murray Darling Basin Plan’s implementation, following a meeting of state and commonwealth water ministers in Mildura today.
National Farmers Federation water taskforce chair Les Gordon said a briefing note from the forum – Chaired by federal Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce – outlined the new move.
Mr Gordon said an overall review of the Basin Plan and its impacts was already scheduled – but a further body of work would interrogate the efficiency of delivering the additional 450 gigalitres in environmental water flows, targeted for the southern Basin.
He said the underpinning legislation for the Basin Plan required the social and economic impacts of delivering that 450GLs in environmental water to be neutral or beneficial.
But it was not clear how that outcome would occur, so the new study will look at those water delivery measures and potential social and economic impacts on farm communities, he said.
“We strongly welcome that work which is due by the end of the year,” he said.
“It’s a good step forward by all of the ministers.”
Mr Gordon said he attended a stakeholder forum the night before the ministerial council meeting and outlined a list of NFF requests to the ministers.
“Those requests all appear to have been met so we see this as one of the most productive meetings they’ve had for some time,” he said.
“There’s always more work to be done and to be followed through on but on the surface it would seem this has been a good meeting.”
The post-meeting communique said the water ministers agreed to the terms of reference for an independent analysis of efficiency measures, to ensure neutral or improved socio-economic outcomes, which will report in December 2017.
It said the study would report on the potential socio-economic impacts from the design of measures at a range of scales, including socio-economic concerns that go beyond the specific legal requirements of the Basin Plan, and on strategies that may be required to ensure neutral or improved social and economic outcomes.
“The study will take into account information arising from the Murray Darling Basin Authority’s (MDBA) evaluation of Basin Plan impacts and any other relevant information,” the note said.
“Together with the MDBA evaluation, this will provide ministers with a comprehensive set of information on the cumulative socio-economic impacts of the Basin Plan, including the recovery of the 450GLs through efficiency measures.”
Mr Gordon said while attending the stakeholder roundtable, his message to water ministers was that they needed to finish the job of implementing the Basin Plan in a way that avoided adverse socio-economic outcomes and find a pathway to end the deadlock of recent times.
“If these are strong commitments from all ministers, and not just words on a page, then the ministerial council has gone a long way to ensuring the plan achieves environmental outcomes while avoiding further socio-economic pain on Basin communities,” he said.
But the Australian Conservation Foundation said a decision to commission yet another socio-economic study in the Basin showed the Turnbull government was “caving in to delay tactics put up by the big water guzzling states of NSW and Victoria”.
ACF Healthy Ecosystems Program Manager Jonathan La Nauze said Mr Joyce and the Turnbull government had presided over a return to the “bad old days of delay and equivocation over our most precious river system the Murray Darling Basin”.
“This is too important to be thrown in the too hard basket but that’s exactly what yet another study is all about,” he said.
“COAG asked ministers for a "credible pathway" to implement the Basin Plan but what they've cobbled together today looks more like a cul-de-sac.
“COAG made it clear today was supposed to be about coming up with a credible pathway for recovering 450GLs of water for the river - but the big states could not even be coaxed to commit to even a single measly pilot project.”
Victorian Farmers Federation President David Jochinke said his group was pleased to see the new study would go beyond the requirements of the legislation in assessing the socio-economic neutrality of the efficiency measures.
“It must assess the impact on communities, businesses, and other rural enterprises, but we’ve always said it would be impossible to deliver an additional 450GLs in up-water savings without any negative impacts to Basin communities,” he said.
Mr Jochinke said the new analysis must show in full detail the damage water recovery has had not just on Victorian farmers but rural and regional towns and communities.
“There have been several studies already, such as the Goulburn Murray Irrigation District Leadership report and the Victorian government’s socio-economic study, which have all shown the negative impacts of water recovery,” he said.
VFF also welcomed an agreement to recover the remaining 650GLs in the Basin Plan without resorting to further water buybacks.
The independent analysis was also welcomed by Australian Dairy Farmers saying it was a sensible outcome they’d been pushing for.