A RISING tide will lift all boats, and no doubt federal government hoped community confidence would have risen along with progress on the Murray Darling Basin Plan, but recent bad news has pulled the plug on trust.
As if the ambitious $13 billion river reform was not complex enough, allegations of water theft and NSW government gaming the Basin Plan have have added insult to communities struggling with less water and higher costs.
Low hanging fruit in the water recovery process has been plucked, in the form of irrigation buybacks from willing sellers. The remaining recovery to reach the 3200 gigalitre target will inevitably impact local jobs and require cooperation from all forms of government.
Nervous local governments have lit a several new spotfires which could grow out of control if the government is not careful.
Communities in Far Western NSW fear the Menindee Pipeline scheme, to deliver town supply and boost environmental flows, will drain their lake and the Lower Darling River.
And upstream across the Queensland border the good burghers of the Condamine-Balonne region are upset at the federal government's $79 million buyback of 28 gigalitres of irrigation entitlements from the Condamine Balonne river system.
Meanwhile, the South Australian government continues to lobby for a judicial inquiry into the Commonwealth’s management of the river system, despite a Senate inquiry and NSW government inquiry (link) already underway.
Group four of the Murray Darling Association (MDA) of local governments, which comprises councils from Far Western NSW and northern and western Victoria, are united in their opposition to NSW government’s plan to pump downstream water back into town to secure drinking supply.
Broken Hill Mayor Darrea Turley said the lack of information on the Menindee Pipeline plan had allied strange bedfellows against the project proponent, NSW government.
“It’s bringing a bunch of people together who wouldn’t normally talk to each other, at Brewarrina, Pooncarie, floodplain graziers on the Lower Darling and town residents in Broken Hill,” she said.
Regional Water Minister Niall Blair has refused to release information on the project, citing commercial in-confidence while the construction tender for the pipeline is determined.
Ms Turley said opponents do not want financial information. But they will not be satisfied until government stipulates how the pipeline will impact water levels in the Menindee Lakes system, downstream flows into the Lower Darling.
Lower Darling graziers say fear increased extraction by upstream irrigation, which is dominated by cotton, will leave them high and dry and town residents say the pipeline maintenance costs could be a slug to ratepayers.
MDA member councils in the Border Rivers region issued a statement on Friday which said communities felt “blindsided” by the federal government’s buyback, which was recovered from overland flow entitlements owned by Eastern Australian Agriculture.
The statement said the communities hoped any further water recovery would have come from efficiency measures to boost river health without recovering irrigation, under the Healthy Headwaters program.
Paroo Shire Council Mayor, Lindsay Godfrey said his community believed there were no more water buybacks planned.
“(C)onsultation stated that there were no purchases necessary on the Warrego and the Northern Basin Advisory Committee also believed there were to be no purchases,” he said.
“It was supposed to be a new era of consultation on the Basin Plan, but this is the opposite.”
Balonne Shire chief executive Matthew Magin raised the stakes for financial compensation.
“If the government can provide $78m for a single purchase, Paroo and Balonne look forward to sharing in a similar amount to rebuild their communities,” he said.
Like the NSW and Victorian local governments, the Queensland councils are demanding a “seat at the table” on future Basin Plan negotiations.
Murray Darling Association chief executive Emma Bradbury is demanding, on behalf of her members, for local government to be included in the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council and Basin Officials Committee.
“If Basin-related decisions are to be properly informed by local knowledge, it is essential that local government has a meaningful role in that process,” she said.