AN acrimonious meeting between Murray Darling Basin state ministers in Albury in southern NSW today has left Australia’s landmark water reform in disarray.
An interstate clash over the ‘upwater’ element of the Basin Plan has jeopardised up to 1055 gigalitres of water that is yet to be recovered by two key elements of the river reform, as well as finalisation of the outstanding proposal to reduce water recovery in the Northern Basin.
South Australia Water Minister Ian Hunter wants NSW and Victoria commit to deliver so-called ‘upwater’ water recovery of 450 gigalitres, which would flow from upstream and into SA.
The Basin Plan water recovery process was designed to fill two buckets. One holds the upwater, which would come from upgrades to on-farm infrastructure that delivers the equivalent of 450GL of water savings.
Upwater is a compulsory part of the plan, but only if the required reduction of irrigation water entitlements is deliverable with no negative socio-economic impacts.
The other bucket would be filled with up to 2750GL, including buybacks of irrigation entitlements and ‘downwater’ that comes from infrastructure projects that produce water savings equivalent to 605GL worth of buybacks.
These projects are known as sustainable diversion limit recovery projects, or SDLs. They would limit direct buybacks of irrigation entitlements, particularly in NSW and Victoria, and are a key focus of these states.
The Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) recently endorsed the states’ SDL proposals to the federal water minister, and the Northern Basin recovery reduction – to reduce the initial target from 390GL in that region to 320GL.
Acting Water Minister Anne Ruston tabled the Northern Basin reduction amendment in parliament. Labor and the crossbench have until February 14 to pass a disallowance motion against it, and they may have the numbers to do so.
Minister Hunter said unless NSW and Victoria committed to a plan for full recovery of the upwater before February 14, he would lobby for the disallowance motion.
He said NSW and Victoria had “no desire to deliver the plan on time and in full”.
“The 450GL is not an optional part of the Basin Plan… I have an expectation that all jurisdictions will begin a pilot programme for efficiency measures sooner rather than later.”
He accused the eastern states of working with South Australia only to the point where SDLs were approved by the MDBA, which reduced the amount of direct water recovery from irrigators, but stopped short of the upwater recovery which would benefit SA.
NSW Water Minister Niall Blair said it was impossible to work on upwater projects when SA was holding NSW and Victoria “to ransom” over the SDLs and the Northern Basin.
“South Australia have walked away from that way forward and reneged on elements of the plan that have already been agreed to (the SDLs and Northern Basin reduction),” Mr Blair said.
He accused Mr Hunter of “putting politics ahead of policy”.
“They have a state election (on March 17, 2018) and that has overshadowed the progress of the Basin Plan, because of tight polling numbers in South Australia.”
“Now, South Australia is not willing to talk about any implementation issues.
“We won’t be held to ransom for South Australian politics, so we said all bets are off and we’ll chance our arm in the Senate.
“South Australia would prefer to blow up the Basin Plan than allow projects that have been consulted on with the public, and had the science approved (by the MDBA) to recover water, and that probably means South Australia will get nothing out of the upwater.”
Private consultants EY produced a report commissioned by the ministerial council on the potential socio-impacts of upwater recovery, which is yet to be publicly released.
Mr Hunter said it provided a “flexible framework that maps out a range of ways” to deliver the upwater in a socio-economically neutral or beneficial way.
“The EY report have us a positive path forward.
“Why stand in the way of irrigators getting access to Commonwealth money (for on-farm upgrades for upwater projects) - to invest in your business, become more efficient and return more water?”
Mr Blair contended there was no obvious path to implement upwater recovery and said the report identified data gaps in its analysis.
NSW and Victoria offered instead to trial more modest measures for upwater contributions, coming from off-farm as opposed to on-farm recovery, which will fill in missing information.
National Irrigators Council chief executive Steve Whan said the SDLs and Northern Basin Review have been elements of the Basin plan since it was formed in 2012.
Basin states agreed to form the plan and once again, unanimous support is required to keep the plan on track, he said.
“Unfortunately that has not happened, with Ministers leaving this morning’s meeting peppering their media comments with accusations rather than solutions.
“We could be forgiven for thinking that South Australian Minister Hunter has one firm eye on an election in March, to the point where he is willing to play a game of brinkmanship with the future of the Murray Darling Basin Plan.”
Mr Whan said if the SDL process fell over “the plan obliges government to recover socially and economically devastating quantities of water from communities in NSW, Vic and SA”.
SDL projects also incorporate constraints measures to deliver water downstream. Should these projects not proceed, SA “physically cannot get its environmental water” he said.
“The SDL measures are so critical that there is a real possibility that if they are disallowed, the Plan implementation could cease.”
*This story has been updated to amend an error, which stated the Senate could disallow the SDL process by February 14, 2018. IN fact the Northern Basin reduction has been tabled The SDLs have not yet been submitted to the Minister, and there is no set timeframe in which that must occur.