THE Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) has approved a package of 36 projects that can adjust the sustainable diversion limits (SDLs) target in the southern Basin, by 605 gigalitres, to avoid any further water buybacks.
It will now be up to Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce to give his final approval by mid-December on the 605GLs in water use efficiency improvements, in reaching the Murray Darling Basin Plan’s 2750GLs target.
Basin state governments nominated the 36 projects that aim to improve water efficiency savings by tweaking river operations, whilst achieving the Basin Plan’s environmental outcomes.
MDBA Executive Director Environmental Management, Carl Binning, said initially the Basin Plan set out that up to 650GLs in SDLs could be recovered through the adjustment mechanism.
But he said the Authority’s assessment had now revealed a target of 605GLs.
“That’s a function of the projects that were nominated by state governments and the environmental benefits they’re able to achieve,” he said.
“It’s not a small number and it’s more than 20 per cent of the recovery target for the Basin which is 2750GLs and quite critically if that 605GLs is agreed by the Commonwealth water minister at the end of this year, it’ll mean no more water recovery from irrigation communities in the southern Basin.”
Mr Binning said while the 36 projects were set by state governments, the MDBA’s job was to assess their environmental contribution, to the Basin Plan.
“The way we do that is by analysing how those projects change the hydrology of the river - so that’s how the river runs and when it runs and for how long it runs - and we assess, with the changes in the way the water flows through the system, what are the environmental plusses and minuses associated with that,” he said.
“And from that we make quite a rigorous and scientific assessment of how much water could get removed from the system and given back to irrigated agriculture and other consumption and that assessment is 605GLs and that’s quite a significant achievement, for that mechanism.
“If a determination is made that 605 will be the number, the 2750 number is reduced by the 605 – and the most important aspect, is that, with all the recovery and contracts that are in place for recovering water since 2012, if this 605GLs is achieved and the commonwealth water minister signs off in December, then the southern basin will be fully recovered so there’ll be no further need for water buybacks.”
National Irrigators Council CEO Steve Whan said he had “cautious optimism” about the MDBA’s assessment of SDL adjustment measures that are designed to produce equal or better environmental outcomes without reducing reliability of supply to Murray Darling Basin water users.
He said they’re also a key component of the basin plan agreed in 2012.
“The MDBA has taken another step on the process by releasing its assessment of the savings that can be achieved from the projects proposed by the basin state governments,” he said.
“Based on the assurance that the 605 GL projected saving means no more water needs to be recovered, this is a very welcome step.
“It is important to remember that there is a long way to go on the planning and consultation on these projects, but the legislation requires this step to be taken with an overall estimate that will be verified when the projects are in place.
“Locking the overall SDL amount into the plan is a vital step in giving irrigation communities confidence in the future.”
Mr Whan said there may still be many questions about the project’s details but there was plenty of time to deal with those, in the years they took to plan and implement.
“Anyone who wants to see the Basin Plan succeed should welcome this announcement along with taking the opportunity to comment and provide feedback for state governments on issues they need to consider in planning,” he said.
Mr Joyce welcomed the MDBA’s draft determination on the SDL adjustment calling it a “significant milestone” for the Basin Plan and opening the way now for public consultation.
“The determination measures the effectiveness of environmental projects by the basin states, showing they will deliver the Basin Plan’s environmental outcomes with less water,” he said.
“What this outcome means for Basin communities and irrigators is more certainty and more water remaining in production.
“This is great for the environment and a positive for the economies of basin communities.
“An offset outcome of 605 gigalitres, combined with the delivery of remaining contracted water recovery projects, will be enough to fully offset the remaining water recovery ‘gap’ in the southern Basin.
“This is excellent news for farmers and for the health of the Basin.
“All Basin jurisdictions through the Basin Officials Committee have expressed support for the draft outcome, providing evidence that the Basin Plan is well on-track.”
Basin Plan about long-term reforms
Mr Binning said the assessment approval on the SDL adjustment projects was “good news”.
“The Murray Darling Basin Plan, at work, is about long term reforms and water management is always controversial,” he said.
“Some stakeholders will be concerned about ensuring that the full amount is recovered so that there’s no further need for water recovery in the future and others will be concerned to ensure those projects are delivering those environmental outcomes.”
The projects will implement changes to the rules governing river operations to allow water for the environment to be more effectively managed, Mr Binning said.
“Today we invite interested members of the public to provide feedback on the assessment,” he said.
“We will review all feedback and use this to finalise our assessment and advice, which will be provided to the Commonwealth water minister by December 15, 2017.
“This is just the start of the process.
“Basin state governments have until 2024 to complete the projects and have committed to working with communities, industries and water experts on further progressing project design and implementation.”
Mr Binning said the Basin Plan - signed into law 2012 - was a historic agreement between state and Commonwealth governments, setting a clear pathway to 2024 to restore the health of river and it was “on track”.
“Today’s assessment is another key milestone achieved – but it’s worth taking a little step back,” he said.
“The Murray Darling Basin Plan is a long term reform and it’s a reform that goes right through to 2026.
“It’s about safeguarding a national asset and our rivers, our agricultural industries and communities and fundamentally it sets limits on how much water can be used for towns, irrigation and other industries etc.
“These projects have been nominated by the states, to make the plan more flexible.
“The idea when the plan was set, was that the 2750GLs recovery target could be varied in two ways.
“The first is projects nominated by states that use water for environment more efficiently and effectively so a good example of that is some infrastructure that may be installed which allows water to get to a flood pain that it hasn’t been able to get to for a long period time, and at places like the Barmah-Millewa Forest that’s happening.
“There are also smarter ways of managing the river, so releasing water in late winter and early spring before the irrigation demands come on creates more space in our dams and it’s also the time when many environments want water, so we can achieve a whole bunch of benefits that allows water to become available for consumption.”
Mr Binning said the other way the Basin Pan allowed SDLs to be adjusted was by being smarter in the way irrigation districts are managed and how new technologies are managed on farm.
“There’s also a goal through to 2024 of achieving another 450GLs of savings but this time it’s from in investments in on-farm efficiencies and irrigation practice efficiency measures,” he said.
“That water would then allow water to come back to use for the environment.
“In this way, when the plan was set, the idea was that, by being smarter about the way we can use water, we could achieve more for the environment and more for agricultural industries.
“The water that’s used more effectively for the environment we’ve determined that those 36 projects can deliver 605GLs and that means no more recovery required, from irrigation.
“And then there’s a separate program which aims to achieve on-farm efficiency and irrigation efficiency to make more water available for the environment – so if you like the opposite – and that scheme is only just starting but it will run through to 2024 and aims to recover 450GLs.”
Mr Binning said while the 36 projects underpinning the 605GLs in SDLs related to measures like how the timing of water flows and water volumes can be manipulated, many other water management tools were also “really important”.
“Water quality and water health needs to be good, habitat needs to be good, wetlands need to be good, and we need to address pest species like carp or feral pigs in some of the national parks etc,” he said.
“All these things in the water management business are called complimentary measures and they’re absolutely critical to delivering the outcomes for the Basin Plan.
“Work is continuing for the release of the carp herpes virus - with a target release date of 2019 - and we’re very optimistic and enthusiastic about anything that can control carp populations in the Basin because carp are by far the largest fish population in the basin but they’re like a pest species.
“And in the same way CSIRO did their work on Calicivirus and Myxomatosis they really saved agricultural Australia from a scourge of plague rabbit populations and hopefully this can do the same for native fish populations in our rivers.”