LEGISLATION to cap commonwealth water buybacks at 1500 gigalitres in the Murray Darling Basin Plan has passed the House of Representatives today.
Parliamentary Secretary to the Environment Minister Bob Baldwin said the Water Amendment Bill 2015 was now likely to pass the Senate as early as tomorrow, carrying bipartisan support from the ALP.
He first foreshadowed introducing the legislation in March and then presented the Bill to the lower house in May while calling for bipartisan support from the federal Opposition.
But Labor withheld that support to canvass current views on the cap from new State Labor governments and water ministers in Queensland and Victoria.
However, the recent release of an independent stocktake report on the Basin Plan’s progress towards achieving its environmental watering targets saw those States withdraw opposition.
It also shifted South Australia’s historical opposition, while convincing federal Labor to provide bipartisan backing.
The Basin Plan was passed into law in late 2012 by then Water Minister Tony Burke with a baseline target of 2750GL in Sustainable Diversion Limits and a further 450GL for South Australia.
The 1500GL cap on commonwealth water buybacks fulfils an election commitment from the Abbott government and will help provide certainty to rural and irrigation communities, Mr Baldwin said.
“In implementing the Basin Plan, our focus is on a triple bottom line approach that maximises benefits for communities, the economy and the environment and supports vibrant food and fibre production industries across the Basin,” he told the Murray Darling Association conference today.
“We are achieving this by capping water purchases at 1500GL and focusing water recovery through investment in on and off-farm irrigation efficiency infrastructure.”
During debate on the Bill yesterday, Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said the Opposition recognised the government's desire to provide certainty to basin communities by placing a cap of 1500GL on water purchases.
“On that basis we will not be standing in the way of this government initiative,” he said.
“We have also carefully considered the position of the basin states and, again, on that basis we will not be opposing this Bill.”
Mr Fitzgibbon said the Bill also amends the Basin Plan to provide increased flexibility in the recovery of 450GL for South Australia, through efficiency measures funded under the Water for the Environment Special Account.
He said to date, more than 1900GL had been recovered for the environment, in the Basin Plan, including more than 1160GL through water purchases, over 600GL through infrastructure investment and over 180GL through other basin state recovery actions.
“This is water that can be used at appropriate times and where it is needed to improve flows and help restore health throughout the system,” he said.
Mr Fitzgibbon said, according to ABS figures, in 2012-13 the basin accounted for more than 50 per cent of Australia's irrigated produce.
He said around two million people live and work in the basin and a further 1.2 million people depend on its water to survive.
“All of this agricultural production and the two million people living in the basin rely on a healthy, functioning river system,” he said.
Riverina Nationals MP Michael McCormack said the 1500GL cap had been Coalition policy since the morning of Tuesday, November 27, 2012.
“I remember it well because I had a one-on-one meeting with the then opposition leader the night before to discuss this very policy,” he said.
“As of March 2015 there are 1162GL of the 1500GL cap already obtained, leaving 338GL of headroom for the strategic purchase of gap-bridging surface water.
“I hope that strategic purchase is such that it is in fact not 338GL but much less, with the water infrastructure on-farm and off-farm that we are investing in right now.”
Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce said a Labor-Green-Independent government in the previous parliament was at one point discussing taking 6000GL out of the system.
“It would have been an absolute nightmare,” he said.
“We went to work to make sure that we could bring about a better outcome - a cap on buybacks being limited to 1500GL.
“We want to make sure we change the objective so that we focus on the proper triple bottom line, which is economic, social and environmental.
“What we had before was environment, daylight, daylight, forget about everybody and then make excuses for the social and economic outcomes.
“That is not what we wanted.
“We wanted to make sure we maintained the fabric of the towns - the fabric of the Dirranbandis, the St Georges, the Milduras, the Berrys, the Deniliquins and the Griffiths because the people in these towns have a right to an economic future.
“Water is wealth.
“It is so fundamentally important that we get this right.”
An inquiry report tabled this week by the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee also backed the 1500GL cap legislation.
Inquiry Chair and South Australia Liberal Senator Anne Ruston said the legislation provided much-needed certainty to river communities.
She said the Committee found that the legislation would be of “significant benefit to river communities and irrigators and was integral to delivering the environmental, social and economic outcomes required by the Basin Plan”.
“The aim of the Basin Plan is to deliver a triple-bottom line outcome, not favour the environment at the expense of river communities which rely on irrigation,” she said.
The Victorian Farmers Federation welcomed the inquiry’s endorsement of the cap – but the Australian Conservation Foundation said the legislation introduced an unnecessary element of risk to the river system’s future management.