ANNOUNCING a new milestone in the national water reform, the Murray Darling Basin Authority says finalisation of a list of water saving projects is good news to irrigation communities.
But irrigators say the achievement has only been made on paper, arguing there is a lack of detail on how the projects will impact the river and water availability, and that the states who are responsible for building the new works have poor track record of project completion.
MDBA has released its long awaited report on the package of 36 sustainable diversion limit adjustment projects proposed by Basin State governments.
It will consult with communities before handing the list to Water Minister Barnaby Joyce for final approval by December 15.
The development means unpopular water entitlement buybacks are now likely off the table in the southern Basin, where the last of the heavy lifting on water recovery has been done, said MDBA executive director environmental management Carl Binning.
The projects would return enough water, 605 gigalitres in total, to make further direct recovery through buybacks unnecessary.
“The models (on project water saving) have been developed behind closed doors, and I believe they are wrong,” said South Australian Murray Irrigators chairwoman Caren Martin.
“Science is designed to be questioned. The MDBA should have more on-the-ground staff in the field measuring, monitoring and checking its models, but the organisation is hugely top-heavy with staff working on policy and communication.
“At the moment, the MDBA rely on community groups to get data. Policy has been written, it is done to death, and the environment is responding, but they are missing such good data.
“I think the MDBA should just scrap the consultation, anything said in the meetings to date has been ignored anyway. They (the states and the MDBA) should pick one project, just one, and deliver it, and monitor the results.”
The SDL projects are the so-called ‘downwater’ river flow efficiency projects which must be handed to federal Water Minister Barnaby Joyce who has until December 15 to accept, or reject the package.
The SDL adjustment projects are in-stream works and measures that deliver an equivalent to water saving by improving flow, and reducing wastage – by improving weirs, channels and a range of other measures.
The SDLs knock 605GL off the recovery target and keep the additional water in play for irrigation. If the SDL projects did not recover sufficient volumes to hit 2750GL, further buybacks may have been needed to make up the shortfall.
MDBA executive director environmental management Carl Binning said the projects would return enough water, 605 gigalitres in total, to make further direct recovery through buybacks unnecessary.
The Basin Plan requires water use be reduced by the 2750GL recovery target, to reset the maximum annual take to 10,873GL. The annual take is known as the sustainable diversion limit, or SDL.
Irrigators from southern NSW and Victoria issued a joint statement criticising the SDL process.
“Our groups are uniting to express grave concern and call for a total review of the SDL adjustment mechanism process,” the statement said.
It was signed by Southern Riverina Irrigators, Murray Valley Private Diverters, Murray River Action Group, Mid Murrumbidgee Landholders Group, Upper Goulburn Catchment Association and Lower Darling representatives.
The groups said there was a lack of detail provided in community information sessions organised by the MDBA.
“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.
“How can we support anything when we cannot assess the risk, or possible mitigation, that each proposal will have on vital elements like access to allocation?”
Buybacks are a controversial issue among irrigation towns in the southern Basin. Many fear communities will suffer from the knock-on economic impacts from the reduction in water available for farm production.
However, buyback offers have not been hard to fill, and it would be expected there would be willing sellers should another round kick off.
Adding to community anxiety is the so-called ‘upwater’ element of the Basin Plan, which requires a 450GL to be recovered through investment in on-farm efficiencies measures, and comes on top of the 2750GL recovery target.
The upwater recovery is contingent on no negative socioeconomic impacts to the entitlement holder.
Mrs Martin said, in light of the protracted reform process to date, the Basin Plan should include a mechanism to force the states and MDBA to complete the SDL process.
“What sort of insurance can they give us, the taxpayer, that they will be right, and the job will get done?
“There should be a rule, if you blow a deadline, the MDBA and the state each has to return 5GL of water recovered” to consumptive use, she said.