‘Too optimistic’: upwater report no silver bullet, irrigators say

Mixed reaction to Murray Darling water recovery report


National Issues
Flood irrigation near Moulamein. Photo Michele Mossop.

Flood irrigation near Moulamein. Photo Michele Mossop.

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Off-farm water recovery welcomed, warnings over impacts from on-farm water cuts

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Irrigation groups welcomed several aspects of consultancy Ernst and Young’s report into the viability of Basin Plan upwater but share a common concern of the impacts of projects to limit water availability to irrigators.

Last week Ernst and Young released a long-awaited study into the viability of securing an additional 450 gigaltires of water for South Australia from NSW, Victoria and Queensland for the Basin Plan. 

The 450GL, also known as “upwater”, is one bucket of the overall Basin Plan push to return an overall 3200GL to the river system. 

The consultancy was commissioned by the Ministerial Council of Murray Darling Basin states, amid a tense political standoff over plans to recover more water from irrigation.

The report delivered a nuanced assessment of on-farm water recovery, noting how previous schemes have delivered a mix of positive and negative impacts across the Basin. 

National Irrigators chief executive Steve Whan welcomed the report, but said South Australia’s assessment that it paved the way for swift delivery of upwater was “too optimistic”, arguing the EY’s recommendations require significant time and further assessment to implement.

“It’s worth noting the report says careful planing is needed to avoid negative impacts and to build trust and understanding in communities,” Mr Whan said.

“The broader social impacts of  water recovery are important, It’s not just a matter of doing as South Australia suggests so  we can go bingo!, let’s roll out the plan and get it all done.”

“But I am pleased the report suggested a range of off-farm (water saving) measures. They’re worth pursuing.”

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Mr Whan said healthy regional communities’ future viability will depend on ensuring reduction to water availability did not disproportionately impact any one industry.

“The report said, as farmers have argued previously, that as the easier water savings are achieved things become more costly. From here on it will have to be a process of focusing on what is achievable," he said.

National Irrigators' Steve Whan says he "makes no secret" of his opposition to upwater recovery, but warns future programs cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach.

National Irrigators' Steve Whan says he "makes no secret" of his opposition to upwater recovery, but warns future programs cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach.

A popular element of EY’s detailed 300 page document report among irrigation representatives was the recommendation of urban water savings projects such as substituting water from Adelaide’s desalination plant for river flow and efficient management of Canberra’s stormwater.

NSW Irrigators chief executive Mark McKenzie said the report did not show any cause to alter his association’s policy that water recovery from productive use should be off limits.

“There’s nothing in EY’s report that shifts us from our current policy – that there shouldn’t be further water recovery from productive use,” he said.

“The only exception would be if the government entered strategic water purchase arrangements, where it’s proven there won’t be significant third party impacts.”

Mr McKenzie cautioned that analysis focused on short to medium term impacts, which he said was particular concerning for industries which are approaching “tipping points” like dairy and, to a lesser extent, rice.

“The report doesn’t provide a long term outlook. There are knowledge gaps around impacts to the prices in the temporary water market, which has more and more irrigators relying on it.

He welcomed the report’s “low hanging fruit” in urban water recovery and offered conditional support potential savings identified in various private irrigation schemes, pending agreement from the operators themselves.

Victorian Farmers Federation water council chairman Richard Anderson was “not surprised” by the report’s essential message, that further recovery is possible with careful analysis.

He said focus should remain on delivering the 37 SDL offset projects, which are set to return the equivalent of 605GL of flow, “for the river’s health”.

“While they’re held up mucking around with upwater, the environment misses out,” Mr Anderson said.

“We need to put the 605GL through and fund the states to investigate how to deliver upwater recovery.”

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