FARM groups have backed high level approval granted to a package of projects aimed at potentially delivering 650 gigalitres of the Murray Darling Basin Plan’s 2750GLs target, without cutting more water from agricultural production.
But the various and complex projects that will seek to deliver the 650GLs of ‘down water’ environmental flows in the Basin Plan, to achieve a balanced outcome, will require skin-tight consultation with rural stakeholders, especially farming ones that will live with negative outcomes, during ongoing design and implementation process.
A meeting of state and federal water ministers held in Canberra last Friday agreed to endorse the final package of Sustainable Diversion Limit (SDL) adjustment mechanism projects – a move welcomed by irrigators and the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF).
A statement from the meeting said through projects like environmental works and changes to river operational rules, the SDL adjustment mechanism enabled environmental outcomes to be delivered in a way that eliminated the need for further water recovery in the southern Basin, to achieve the Basin Plan’s objectives.
“Basin governments have identified ways to achieve environmental outcomes and to reduce the impacts of floods through pre-releases and different flow regimes that better mimic natural conditions without impacting long and short term reliability,” the statement said.
“These changes combined with the full SDL adjustment mechanism package have further generated environmental benefit.
“Preliminary advice on the projects from the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) indicates the package is likely to achieve an SDL offset in excess of 600GLs.
“The latest advice has provided ministers with a high level of confidence that the final SDL adjustment mechanism outcome, combined with remaining contracted water recovery projects, will be sufficient to fully offset the remaining water recovery ‘gap’ in the southern Basin.”
But the statement from the meeting also said water ministers - at the meeting chaired by federal Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce - had reiterated the importance of the “integrity” of the package of projects and ongoing consultation with stakeholders and local communities.
It said community input was “critical” to the ongoing detailed design and implementation of the projects to ensure any third party impacts were “appropriately mitigated”.
“Basin governments and the MDBA will work in partnership to provide information to communities about how they can contribute,” it said.
“Ministers emphasised the need to safeguard economic, environmental, social and cultural outcomes from these projects.
“Implementation must take an adaptive and consultative approach between now and 2024.”
Basin governments will now be required to notify the package of SDL adjustment projects to the MDBA by June 30 this year and the Authority will then complete modelling and assessment, consult Basin governments, and undertake formal public consultation in October and November.
The MDBA will then provide advice to the Ministerial Council on its progress in November and propose amendments to the Commonwealth water minister for adoption by December 15, this year.
“Ministers have committed to undertake focused engagement on the package of projects ahead of formal public consultation,” the statement said.
A list of SDL adjustment mechanism projects will be published on the MDBA website by June 30.
NFF Water Taskforce Chair Les Gordon said the most pleasing aspect of the ministerial meeting was the “high level” of confidence that the projects to meet the 650GLs target, together with water already contracted, would complete southern basin water recovery.
Mr Gordon said the water ministers’ commitment to detailed consultation in the design and implementation of these projects was also “very welcome”
"We know many of the projects are not straightforward and will require detailed and meaningful consultation with irrigators, riparian landholders and communities,” he said.
"Governments need to build stakeholder confidence in these projects and ensure those that will be affected by their implementation will have their needs met.”
Irrigators also back endorsement of Northern Basin Review
The National Irrigators’ Council said the meeting’s agreement on the package of measures sent “a very positive signal” to Basin communities that it was now possible to deliver the Basin Plan with no more buybacks in the southern basin.
NIC CEO Steve Whan said ministers reaching an agreement on the SDL adjustment measures and another one following the Northern Basin Review had seemed “very difficult only a year ago”
“NIC was told by a number of Ministers that they strongly emphasised the need for consultation with stakeholders and communities during their discussion on this and I welcome the fact that there is room to work through the design and implementation with those who feel they could be impacted,” he said.
“Most importantly this decision gives irrigators and irrigation communities confidence and some certainty that they will not be asked to give up more productive water to meet the rest of the 2750GLs target.
“That was the clear alternative and it was an unacceptable alternative.”
Mr Whan said the ministers reaching agreement at the meeting to reduce the Northern Basin’s water recovery target from 390GLs to 320GLs following a review by the MDBA was “positive news” for northern basin communities.
He said 320GLs still won’t be an easy target for the northern basin with 278GLs already recovered which has produced, proven, negative social and economic impacts.
In some towns, the impact already has been 11 times worse than impact on Adelaide of the closure of Holden manufacturing, he said.
“Any further recovery will produce more pain for those communities and the pain is very focused in some valleys – however the 70GLs reduction in the target is positive and the ministerial council’s support is welcome,” he said.
“Crucially the 70GLs reduction has been scientifically assessed by the MDBA as making no real difference to environmental outcomes or to water in the southern basin.
“We would urge federal MPs to follow the basin ministers’ lead when the northern basin review is tabled in parliament.”
The meeting statement said water ministers reaffirmed their previous commitment that any changes arising from the northern basin review should have no negative impacts on triple bottom line outcomes in the southern basin.
It said if any negative impacts are identified they would be addressed by the MDBA as part of the established review processes of the Basin Plan.
“In considering the proposed Basin Plan amendments, ministers made an in-principle commitment to the implementation of a comprehensive suite of new projects for the northern basin, subject to funding being available,” it said.
“These agreed projects (referred to as ‘toolkit measures’), target improved water management and environmental outcomes across the northern basin.
“The next step will be for the MDBA to consider ministers’ feedback on the proposed amendments, before providing a final proposed amendment to the Commonwealth water minister for decision.”
The ministerial meeting said EY was also recently appointed to undertake an independent expert analysis of efficiency measures in the Basin Plan and report back to the Council in December 2017.
Ministers also reaffirmed their support for complementary environmental projects and will consider further advice at future meetings on how to best embed them in the Basin Plan’s implementation.
State water ministers react
NSW Regional Water Minister Niall Blair said the meeting’s agreement on the package of water and environmental projects, which eliminated the need for any further purchases of productive water to deliver the Basin Plan, was an important step forward for NSW farming families and businesses.
“The agreed package delivers the full 650GLs water recovery offset and this is good for the basin as well as NSW food and fibre producers,” he said.
“This agreement is certainly a positive step, but the work does not end here.
“Our focus now is on continuing to engage with communities to ensure projects can be designed and delivered and without impacting the security of people’s water entitlements or their property rights - I look forward to seeing the results on December 15.”
SA Water Minister Ian Hunter welcomed the endorsement of the package of projects at the meeting last week - but said ministers must now focus on delivering the final 450GLs promised to sustain the river, in the southern portion of the basin.
“We now have clear agreement on how to progress two of the three key elements highlighted in the COAG plan,” he said.
“I expect to see the Commonwealth and all states now prioritise the Basin Plan’s only remaining water recovery requirement: the final 450GLs by 2024.
“My government’s priorities for the Basin Plan remain unchanged: the plan must be delivered in full and on time.
“This is our promise not just to South Australians but to all Australians who cherish and value this iconic river system.”