A WAR of words has erupted between Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce and former Labor Water Minister and now the shadow Tony Burke over a proposed 70 gigalitre cut to the northern component of the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) CEO Phil Glyde revealed this week he’d written to relevant water ministers recommending the Basin Plan’s northern target be reduced from 390GL to 320GL.
The mooted 70GL reduction has resulted from an ongoing consultation process over the past four years and MDBA modelling of social, economic and environmental impacts which has also involved farming representatives.
The review process will trigger legislative amendments to adjust the Basin Plan, to be moved by Mr Joyce in federal parliament in July or August, while backing from the NSW and Queensland governments for the 70GL proposal is critical to the final outcome.
A campaign involving 13 farming groups like the National Irrigators Council, National Farmers Federation, state farming bodies in NSW and Queensland, local irrigation groups and Cotton Australia wanted the MDBA to stop at 278GL saying it represented the volume of water already recovered in the Northern Basin.
Group spokesperson Mick Murray said he was surprised the MDBA had maintained its recommendation - made public in November last year - for a 70GL reduction and was disappointed it had not gone further.
Mr Murray said throughout the campaign it was argued that water acquisition should stop at 278GL and all remaining effort and funding should focus on implementing ‘complementary measures’ that would deliver “real” environmental improvements.
He said the campaign group was confident complementary measures like works to mitigate cold water pollution from dams, improving native fish passage, and getting rid of feral carp, would do more for the environment than simply acquiring more water.
“I note the Authority’s own economic modelling shows a 390GL Plan would cost 205 jobs in the St George and Dirranbandi areas, while the 320GL plan costs 132 jobs,” he said.
“These are small communities; they simply can’t afford these jobs losses.
“Furthermore, this story is repeated in communities such as Collarenebri, Moree, Wee Waa, Warren and many other towns across the Basin.
“The focus should be on maximising environmental outcomes in a way that causes the least social and economic harm.”
However, the proposed amendments are a disallowable instrument that can be raised by the Opposition, Senate crossbenchers like the Nick Xenophon Team, One Nation or the Greens, resulting in a potentially heated political clash and vote in parliament.
Mr Burke turned the 70GL proposal towards a focus on Mr Joyce’s move last year to write to SA Water Minister Ian Hunter claiming 450GL of environmental water for SA would not be recovered in the Basin Plan and money set aside for it could be made available for other purposes.
He said the MDBA had acted in good faith recommending a lower amount of water be recovered from the Northern Basin with minimal environmental impact but “the actions of the Deputy Prime Minister change the context completely”.
“While some reports have said a reduction of 70GL recovered in the Northern Basin could have an impact of less than 10GL in the Southern Basin, the whole context is changed completely when this becomes 10GL on top of 450GL because of Mr Joyce's actions,” Mr Burke said who oversaw the Basin Plan being signed into law in 2012.
“The Basin Plan represents a careful balance of minimising impacts on communities without jeopardising the future health of the rivers.
“It is irresponsible for the Liberal National government to be asking for support in amending aspects of the plan when it is still not committed to acquiring the 450GL which is meant to be delivered through Commonwealth subsidised on-farm infrastructure improvements.
“The environmental flows provided by this 450GL demarcates the difference between a healthy flowing river and what we saw when the Plan was being developed; a closed Murray mouth and algal blooms for 1000 kilometres.
“The Deputy Prime Minister needs to clarify if he supports the whole Plan or just the parts that suit him - there are no half-way measures here.”
But a spokesperson for Minister Joyce said Mr Burke trying to make a political ‘upstream versus downstream’ issue out of the Northern Basin review was “pathetic and disappointing”.
“The MDBA has clearly stated in its advice to Ministers that their recommendations “will have no material effect on environmental outcomes in the southern Basin”,” a statement said.
“In fact, MDBA modelling shows that flows over the barrages would be reduced by an average of just 3GL per year against the existing plan - that’s 3GL out of average annual flows over the barrages of 7218GL, or 0.04 per cent.
“Further, MDBA modelling shows that under their recommended changes, SA is likely to receive increased flows in drier periods.”
“Now who is playing politics with water?”
Tony Burke challenged to visit Northern Basin communities
The spokesperson said under the proposed 70GL scenario, around 200 jobs would be saved across struggling Northern Basin communities, while still achieving the same level of environmental outcomes.
“This clearly makes good sense,” the spokesperson said.
“I challenge Mr Burke to visit communities like Dirranbandi, Collarenebri and Warren before attempting to derail this process.
“No one who understands the struggles of those communities would choose to fabricate a political debate from it.
“Let’s not forget this outcome has arisen from a review he himself wrote into the Basin Plan in 2012.”
The spokesperson said in cooperation with Basin states and communities, the MDBA had devised a range of toolkit measures to provide improved environmental outcomes while reducing the amount of water required to be recovered.
“It’s important to note that even under the recommended changes there is further recovery to go through for some of these communities,” the statement said.
“In relation to Mr Burke’s comments about the 450GL of ‘up water’, all Basin states and the Commonwealth have agreed to an independent analysis of efficiency measures to ensure they can be delivered with neutral or positive socio-economic impacts, as negotiated by Mr Burke when the Plan was written and agreed to in an intergovernmental agreement signed by former Prime Minister Gillard.
“This cooperative approach should be welcomed by Mr Burke.”
Irrigators agree 70GL won’t impact south
The National Irrigators Council offered mixed views on the 70GL proposal but agreed there would be no impact on SA and the southern system.
NIC CEO Steve Whan said Northern Basin communities had made many sacrifices to see the existing 278GL in savings and would rightly be disappointed at being offered an outcome that would cost more jobs and production.
“For many it will be a tough outcome despite the fact the 70GL adjustment overall is better than nothing,” he said.
Mr Whan said according to the MDBA calculations it was “clear” that changing the target from 390GL to 320GL had no measurable impact on water available for SA and the Southern Basin.
“Indeed, as I understand it in some dry periods there may be an increase,” he said.
“On that basis it is hard to see any practical reason why there would be opposition to the recommendation from the Southern Basin, including SA.”
Political support for 70GL and 320GL target
Mr Hunter has previously said the SA government wanted evidence that a reduction in the water recovery target from the Northern Basin review would have little impact on the southern connecting basin and anything less than 320GL would not be accepted.
A spokesperson for NSW Regional Water Minister Niall Blair indicated support for the 70GL proposal but wanted the reduction in water recovery to go further.
The spokesperson said the decision to reduce water recovery in the Northern Basin from 390GL to 320GL was a step in the right direction - but it was disappointing that more productive water would be taken out of some northern communities, effectively leading to NSW being 'over recovered’.
“The sole focus on water recovery is obviously detrimental to Basin communities,” the spokesperson said.
“Therefore the approach by the MDBA, while not going far enough, shows the plan can adapt and importantly shifts the focus to environmental projects at the local level.
“The NSW government will continue to put regional NSW front and centre as the Basin Plan in delivered.”
A spokesperson for Queensland Natural Resources and Mines Minister Dr Anthony Lynham said as he has previously stated, “Queensland offers in principle support for a reduction in the Murray Darling Basin water plan targets”.