FARMING leaders say a proposal to cut by 70 gigalitres (GL) the productive water flows reductions in the Northern Basin, to achieve mooted environmental gains, doesn’t go far enough, warning economic harm in at risk communities is widespread.
Murray Darling Basin Authority CEO Phil Glyde revealed today he’d written to relevant water ministers late last week recommending the northern target in the Murray Darling Basin Plan be reduced from 390GL to 320GL.
The process is underpinned by legislative amendments to the Basin Plan that are set to be moved by Federal Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce in federal parliament in July or August.
But farm groups campaigned against the MDBA’s 70GL proposal - that has underpinned recent consultations in the northern review process - saying the Sustainable Diversion Limit (SDL) target should stop at the current 278GL level, representing water already recovered in that section of the river system.
The #Morethanflow campaign included 13 groups like the National Irrigators Council, National Farmers Federation, state farming bodies in NSW and Queensland, local irrigation groups and Cotton Australia.
Group spokesperson Mick Murray said he was surprised the MDBA had maintained its recommendation for a 70GL reduction but “we are disappointed it has not gone further”.
Mr Murray said industry and individuals, plus irrigator and community groups, argued long and loud throughout the campaign that water acquisition should stop at 278GL and all remaining effort and funding should focus on implementing ‘complementary measures’ that would deliver “real” environmental improvements.
He said the campaign group was confident that complementary measures like works to mitigate cold water pollution from dams, improving native fish passage, and getting rid of feral carp, would do more for the environment than simply acquiring more water.
“I note the Authority’s own economic modelling shows a 390GL Plan would cost 205 jobs in the St George and Dirranbandi areas, while the 320GL plan costs 132 jobs,” he said.
“These are small communities; they simply can’t afford these jobs losses.
“Furthermore, this story is repeated in communities such as Collarenebri, Moree, Wee Waa, Warren and many other towns across the Basin.
“On the Authority’s own numbers a 320GL plan still takes 530 jobs collectively out of all these communities.
“The focus should be on maximising environmental outcomes in a way that causes the least social and economic harm.”
Mr Murray said if harm to those communities can’t be avoided, they must be given the opportunity for genuine structural adjustment.
“Put simply, if more water must be acquired, then it should be acquired in a strategic manner that absolutely minimises social and economic impacts,” he said.
Nationals Maranoa MP David Littleproud said the MDBA’s 70GL recommendation was an acknowledgment of the “profound impact” of the recovery targets on towns like St George and Dirranbandi in his sparse rural and farming electorate.
“While it’s a step in the right direction, I still don’t think the reduction goes far enough,” he said of the proposed reduction.
“The pain in Dirranbandi is still obvious and I’m sure this reduction answers all of the community’s prayers, but given it’s a reduction – and it’s the recommendation of an independent umpire - I will accept it all the same.”
Mr Glyde said the 70GL recommendation was foreshadowed by extensive consultation and research, including modelling economic and social impacts of different water reduction target scenarios, which landed on a balanced outcome.
“But I’d expect with every decision to do water there will always be people who think we don’t go far enough or have gone too far so I’d expect there will continue to be some sort of political debate,” he said.
Mr Glyde said the 70GL reduction was “a lot better” for towns like St George or Dirranbandi than what was proposed in the original Basin Plan but “it will still have a significant impact”.
“That’s why we’ve called for, in addition to these tool kit measures, governments to collectively consider some sort of assistance to those communities that are particularly badly affected and St George and Dirranbandi are two communities that are particularly affected by the rebalancing of the water, in the basin,” he said.
A spokesperson for My Joyce said the Deputy Prime Minister was aware that the MDBA had written to state water ministers seeking support for its proposed amendment to the Basin Plan that would result in 70GL less water being recovered.
The spokesperson said the Northern Basin Review had taken four years to finalise and was a comprehensive look at the environmental, social and economic impacts of water recovery on catchments and communities.
“The MDBA has stated that the changes would result in substantially improved socio economic outcomes for northern Basin communities, while having no material impact to environmental outcomes in the southern Basin,” the spokesperson said.
“Therefore widespread support for the amendments should be expected from Basin ministers.
“In November 2016, the Minister announced the establishment of a Northern Basin Programs Taskforce, which will report on how best to implement the MDBA’s final recommendations while minimising social and economic impacts on local communities.”