Thirsty upwater obstacle obstructs river reforms

Fresh challenges still to flow through Murray Darling Basin Plan


Farm Online News
Direct water entitlement buybacks are limited in law to 1500GL.

Direct water entitlement buybacks are limited in law to 1500GL.

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Fresh challenges still to flow through Murray Darling Basin Plan

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FIVE years after it was legislated to return 3200 gigalitres to the environment and the Basin Plan is still a long way from settled.

No wonder public attention is yet to focus on the 450GL of so-called ‘upwater’ yet to be recovered. It is a small drop in the big Murray Darling bucket.

But irrigators warn this drip could spill over into unacceptable consequences for communities across the breadth of the Basin.

That is because upwater is slated to come from government-funded ‘efficiency measures’, with investment in on-farm infrastructure upgrades to save water, which is returned to the environment. 

River reform pits upstream against downstream.

Upwater flows would benefit South Australia, which is impacted by concerns of low flows during drought, poor oxygen and elevated salt and nutrient pollutants. 

*Northern Basin target depends on parliamentary approval for the MDBA's proposed 70GL reduction. Measurements given in gigalitres (GL).

*Northern Basin target depends on parliamentary approval for the MDBA's proposed 70GL reduction. Measurements given in gigalitres (GL).

But SA Murray Irrigators chairwoman Caren Martin agreed with upstream irrigators about “socially ruinous” impacts from further on-farm recovery.

“There is truth in what they say for all of us. Taking consumptive capacity from farms impacts in town. You can’t bring a packing shed back after it’s closed. Once gone its gone.” 

Up to $1.6 billion in funding is set aside for upwater recovery. To date, the only method proposed is the Commonwealth On-Farm Further Irrigation Efficiency (Coffie) program, trialled in a pilot in SA.

NSW Irrigators chief executive Mark Mckenzie is an outspoken opponent of further on-farm recovery.

Plans are already in place to recovery 650GL of ‘downwater’ (see page right) from efficiency investments, but there irrigators retain half their entitlement.

The Coffie program would stir-up already murky rural economies, as highlighted last week by the Basin Authority’s 70GL recovery downgrade in Queensland and NSW last week, predicated on job preservation.

“Significant numbers of communities and companies are at breaking point,” Mr Mckenzie said.

“Recovering more water will have a devastating socio-economic impact.”

National Irrigators chief executive Steve Whan said non-flow measures should fill upstream quotas, to improve environmental values without hurting irrigators.

Non-flow measure could include the carp virus and cold water curtains in dams to boost native fish health, repair of riparian habitat, or feral pest controls.

Water Minister Barnaby Joyce acknowledges upwater is a compulsory part of the plan, but stresses the requirement of no negative socio-economic impacts.

Opposition spokesman Tony Burke wants full upwater recovery. Given the pace of reform, he may get his chance, with a federal election due by November 2019.

Meanwhile, the Basin Authority reports in July on crucial downstream projects to a council of Basin ministers.

If they’re judged to fall short of 650GL, further recovery from irrigators may be needed to meet the 2750GL target.

Plenty of parts to irrigation recovery

THE Basin Plan was designed to return an equivalent of 3200GL from irrigation use into the river system, and several parts comprise the overall target. 

The ‘recovery target’ is set at 2750GL, the volume needed to limit irrigation take to 10,873GL (the sustainable diversion limit), deemed the maximum extraction for a healthy river system. Recovery includes 600GL worth from on-farm efficiency upgrades.

Up to 650GL of the recovery target can be offset by infrastructure and water management to improve water use efficiency and deliver and equivalent saving to boost the environment (also called downwater).

The 450GL of ‘upwater’, which comes on top of the recovery target, is designed to aid river health.

Upwater is set to come from ‘efficiency measures’, like on-farm efficiency upgrades, where water savings are deducted from irrigation entitlements. Upwater can only be recovered if there are no negative socio-economic impacts.

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