THE Murray Darling Basin Authority has hit back at stirring claims made by dissenting community groups about critical water reform measures, following revelations of moves this week to end water buybacks, in the southern Basin.
The National Irrigators Council and National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) cautiously welcomed the MDBA’s assessment of a package of 36 projects nominated by state governments to adjust the sustainable diversion limits (SDLs) target in the Murray Darling Basin Plan by 605 gigalitres.
But a collective statement by six groups including the Southern Riverina Irrigators slammed the MDBA’s consultation process, underpinning the 605GLs announcement.
“We can only describe the bureaucratic process designed to provide information on water saving projects as alarming and disgraceful,” the statement said while calling for a review of the SDL adjustment mechanism process.
“Our concerns follow a series of meetings across our regions, organised by the MDBA which were supposed to explain progress on the SDLs.
“But the meetings did little other than expose the flaws and lack of available information to give anyone confidence that they could be successfully implemented and make a positive contribution to the Basin Plan.”
The statement said the meetings were a failed attempt at community consultation that provided little comfort to affected communities.
“The lack of detail and transparency around proposed water-saving SDL projects which need to be signed off in December is of immense concern,” it said.
“The SDL process has been rushed and has not allowed for adequate development of business cases with due diligence and costings.
“This lack of appropriate assessment is leaving governments, communities and businesses at risk of third party impacts.”
Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce is now in charge of the next step in the process with his approval of the 605GLs in water use efficiency improvements, in reaching the Basin Plan’s 2750GLs target, needed by mid-December.
But sources close to the Basin Plan’s implementation – who asked not to be named – said the group’s attack on the MDBA invited the potential to kill-off the SDL adjustment mechanism and force the government to consider more damaging, forced water-buybacks for the southern Basin; a move that would split the irrigation industry.
It would also be in addition to the added 450GLs in environmental water flows that the Basin Plan must also deliver on top of the prime target of 2750GLs, to the SA portion of the Basin.
That extra 450GLs in SDLs was an add-on to the plan’s 2750GLs announced by then Prime Minister Julia Gillard and former Water Minister – now Mr Joyce’s shadow Tony Burke – in the final stages of signing the plan into law, in late 2012.
MDBA Executive Director of Environmental Management Carl Binning returned fire at accusations the process underpinning the 36 projects was rushed or flawed.
He said the Authority’s determination of the 605GLs to use water more efficiently whilst achieving the environmental outcomes sought in the Basin Plan was “a good result”.
Mr Binning said it would deliver environmental outcomes with less water and also meant there’d be no further water recovery in the southern Basin, subject to existing water recovery contracts being delivered and the implementation of the efficiency component.
He said making the assessment on the SDL adjustment mechanism was a long process that the MDBA had been working on in consultation with Basin governments for years.
“The SDL process started in 2012 and the assessment, while a key step, is at the start of the process that needs to be delivered in 2024,” he said.
“State governments have been working with communities for up to four years to design these projects.
“The MDBA's role is to assess them against an agreed methodology to determine how much less water can be recovered for the environment and remain available for communities and industries.
“Projects will be progressively refined and implemented in the period to 2024 and governments have agreed to an adaptive approach which will allow refinement based on further technical assessment, regulatory approvals and ongoing community engagement and feedback.”
Mr Binning said making sure the science and research behind the assessment was sound is “vital” for the 36 projects.
“That’s why we consulted with all Basin governments and also brought in independent experts and we are confident in our assessment,” he said.
Mr Binning said most projects would change in some way during implementation but as a package, environmental outcomes equivalent to 605 GL must be achieved.
He said the MDBA would continue to assess the projects during implementation to ensure desired outcomes are being achieved.
The MDBA also held information sessions in 13 towns across the southern Basin, intended to provide context and outline the next steps for the SDL adjustment mechanism, ahead of releasing the determination for public comment, he said.
Mr Binning said that process included Aboriginal meetings in seven towns and more than 600 people made the time to attend the meetings.
He said state and federal government representatives also attended the meetings to address project-specific questions.
“Basin state governments acknowledge that community input will be very important in understanding the projects at a local-level during the delivery phase and it is the MDBA’s expectation that communities will be involved,” he said.
“We acknowledge that some communities are concerned about these projects and the effect on low-lying flood plains.
“There may be some impacts on low-lying private land.
“What we’ll see is low-lying floodplains more consistently experiencing modest flows.
“We will not see increased high-level flooding, like some part of the Basin experienced last year.
“The majority of land affected through the projects is also public land – national parks and reserves.
“All potentially affected land holders, industries and communities will be consulted by state governments on any changes to flow rates, over the long term.
“Affected landholders will also have access to funding that will provide for improved private floodplain infrastructure such as crossings and improved pump set-ups, and upgrades to ageing public flood infrastructure, such as levees, roads and crossings. “
Mr Binning said managed flows at increased levels would not occur until all works are complete.
He said state governments, as the managers of water entitlements, also developed a range of indicators for each valley to assess impacts on supply reliability.
“These indicators are used by state government experts to ensure changes to SDLs have no detrimental impacts on the reliability of water supply,” he said.
“The Basin Plan is an important long term reform, which is about delivering for water users, communities and the environment.”
NFF – same sentiment but wrong timing
NFF Vice President Les Gordon said the NFF was saying basically the same as the group of six concerned groups - but had used a different set of words.
Mr Gordon said the Basin Plan - not just in the southern region - was about achieving compromise on different agreements and measures, like projects that aim to deliver environmental water at the expense of farm water, that may be disliked by farm groups but ultimately achieve the most sensible outcomes.
But he said it was not the right time and “a bit harsh” to slam the MDBA, at this stage in the planning process.
Mr Gordon said Basin Plan outlined the SDL adjustment process and the pressure was now on the MDBA and state and commonwealth governments to deliver the proposed 605GLs in water saving projects, without damaging farming communities.
”That’s the process we’re working in but it doesn’t shift any responsibility away from the MDBA and the state and commonwealth government to ensure they work with stakeholders to understand their concerns and avoid any unintended consequences,” he said.
“That part of it all is really not rocket science.”
Mr Gordon also welcomed the start of detailed consultation on the MDBA’s assessment of estimates for adjusting the Basin Plan water recovery target for the Southern Basin.
He said the adjustment mechanism enabled the Basin Plan’s water recovery target to be reduced by up to 650GLs where equivalent environmental outcomes can be achieved with less water – the so called 'down water'.
"While the MDBA’s draft analysis indicates state governments haven't come up with the solutions to deliver the full potential of the maximum offset that is possible, the result means that the water recovery required to implement the Basin Plan is complete, and indeed in some areas, over recovery has occurred,” he said.
"We know many of the projects are not straightforward and will require detailed and meaningful consultation with irrigators, riparian landholders and communities.
"Governments need to build stakeholder confidence in these projects and ensure those that will be affected by their implementation will have their needs met.”
Mr Gordon said news that the water recovery task was complete would come as a relief for communities that had been negatively affected by water recovery activities.
But he said “it must be remembered” Basin governments were still considering the planned settings to recover an additional 450GL or the so called up-water provisions.
"The NFF's view on the up water has always been clear: governments should avoid a 'no-regrets' approach to this recovery, and ensure that a more genuine and robust methodology is in place that gives everyone confidence that the neutral or improved social and economic outcomes test of the plan can be met, and that the potential impacts of higher flows can be fairly managed,” he said.
“Ministerial Council-commissioned independent experts, Ernst & Young are in the throes of examining how the neutral or improved test might be met, with their report due by the end of the year.
"With our members, the NFF will be consulting with state governments on the detail of the MDBA's analysis of their down-water projects.
“It is of paramount importance that all stakeholders have confidence in the MDBA's analysis.”
Cotton Australia General Manager Michael Murray says the cotton and other irrigating farming industries “cautiously welcomed” the news from the MDBA of the 605GLs.
"Although this is a preliminary assessment by the MDBA and is subject to further consultation, it is important news for cotton growers and other irrigators and a welcome step forward,” he said.
“Cotton Australia and other water user groups have long advocated that the Basin Plan had to look further than just simple water recovery and the MDBA's announcement is an encouraging sign that such measures are considered valid.
"Irrigators and the communities they support will have more confidence in the Murray Darling Basin Plan now that the overall sustainable diversion limit can be locked in. Although we are still working through the detail of the projects, the MDBA's announcement is welcomed.”
The MDBA has invited feedback on its assessment to be submitted before it makes its final assessment and advice to Mr Joyce.