DIRECT water buybacks in the Basin Plan are far from dead and buried, despite strong opposition from eastern states and irrigation groups.
That is the message from the eminent Wentworth Group of scientists, which said “water recovery has slowed to a trickle” since 2014.
In a high profile report this week, the group argued there is no evidence of Basin-wide environmental benefits and that urgent action is needed to recover more water, particularly because salt flows at the Murray mouth, a gauge of water recovery’s impact on landscape salinity, had only hit half of the targeted 2 million tonnes a year.
But the Wentworth Group’s most sobering advice talks to the purse strings of government and the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), urging them to go into the market with more buybacks.
Lead author of the Wentworth Group’s report, Associate Professor Jamie Pittock they said further buybacks will deliver the best bang for buck to the environment, with minimal economic impacts to river communities.
The argument will come as a shock to irrigator groups and river communities in eastern states, which are vehemently opposed to more buybacks. But it will likely be welcomed in South Australia, where the Basin Plan is yet to deliver a significant increase in environmental flows.
Basin states last week signed off on a list of infrastructure projects to improve flow efficiencies, which could potentially fulfil the full 2750GL recovery target. The Basin Plan allows up to 650GL to be recovered by works to squeeze water resources harder, such as improvements to weirs, channels and so on (known as “downwater”).
Before funding is handed out, projects will be assessed under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act for impacts such as blackwater events, salinity improvement. The Basin Plan also requires minimum flow rates at river’s end.
“It could be the (projects) actually deliver quite a bit less than the full 650GL,” Dr Pittock said.
Dr Jamie Pittock, said regional communities should get a bigger slice of the unspent half which is left in Commonwealth’s $13 billion kitty.
Irrigator and community groups might agree with that point, but Dr Pittock’s views on where the money should be invested might raise their ire.
“The remaining $6b should be used to buy more water entitlements from willing sellers, improve constraints (such as flood levees around at-risk towns, to accommodate new, higher-flow regimes) and to fund more regional development programs,” Dr Pittock said.
“There is about $3b going into 14,500 irrigation enterprises, and in terms of recovering water that is four times more expensive than buying entitlements from willing sellers.”
Dr Pittock said there had been no negative socio-economic impacts from the broader Basin Plan reforms, and “the biggest soak on money at the moment is funding improvements to irrigation infrastructure”.
“You could argue that the low hanging fruit in buybacks is gone. But there is a stronger argument that the low hanging fruit for water infrastructure improvement has been paid for, and further investment will be more expensive than further buybacks. Favouring infrastructure upgrades is foolish.”
The Murray Darling Association, comprised of more than 100 local councils, said many communities would be outraged by Mr Pittock’s comments.
"Work done by our member councils, and numerous reports from state and federal governments shows that this is clearly not the case,” said association chief executive Emma Bradbury.
“Many rural and regional communities struggling in the face of such a rapid change... will be outraged by this statement.”