Basin Plan hangs in the balance as Canberra brawls

Murray Darling Basin Plan disallowance motion puts irrigators in crosshairs


National Issues
Coleambally farmer Trent Gardiner, standing in his son's cotton crop, says farmers are stifled by uncertainty surrounding the Basin Plan, which will come to a head in Canberra today.

Coleambally farmer Trent Gardiner, standing in his son's cotton crop, says farmers are stifled by uncertainty surrounding the Basin Plan, which will come to a head in Canberra today.

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Irrigators warn business, community, environment at stake as states bicker

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UPDATED 11:45am: WHAT’S at stake for irrigators today as Labor considers joining the Greens and voting to block water saving measures in the Murray Darling Basin Plan?

In the Northern Basin, 70 gigalitres is on the line. The Greens have proposed a disallowance motion to block a 70 GL reduction to water recovery under the Basin Plan.

The Murray Darling Basin Authority has conducted a review, written into its remit at formation in 2012, to assess the required reduction to irrigation extraction. It downgraded the initial figure from 390GL to 320GL last year.

Opposition and some members of the Crossbench have the numbers to back the Greens’ motion.

The Greens have also put forward another disallowance motion which puts 605GL of water recovery in play.

They want the Senate to vote on offset projects along with the Northern Basin reduction, and it remains unclear if the government can muster support to block them, or indeed if Labor will support the Greens’ motion.

The Senate is expected to vote sometime today (Wednesday), but it remains unclear what the outcome will be.

It is theoretically possible the Northern Basin Reduction could be reinstated down the track, with new legislation. 

Offset projects are designed to upgrade infrastructure to move water more efficiently, which in turn allows the volume required to be recovered from irrigation to be reduced.

The MDBA has calculated that 37 offset projects can reduce the recovery target from 2750GL to 2075GL (including the 70GL reduction in the north).

Given the water recovery deadlines written into Basin Plan laws, were the offsets voted down the Commonwealth would have to conduct direct water entitlement buybacks from irrigators.

SA’s Labor Water Minister Ian Hunter has led calls to block both measures, arguing for full recovery in the north and increased scrutiny on the offsets. He is backed by federal Labor, led on this issue by Tony Burke.

NSW Water Ministers Niall Blair yesterday said the plan was untenable without the Northern Basin amendment and he and his Victorian counterpart Lisa Neville said the Basin Plan was untenable without the offset mechanisms.

The new infrastructure is not not only designed to increase river efficiency but also boost its carrying capacity to deliver the increased volume of water downstream without regular flooding.

Farmers say if the Basin Plan falling apart it would risk future economic pain, including Coleambally, NSW, irrigator and mixed cropper Trent Gardiner.

“This is straight out political rubbish. Labor and the Greens are holding the success of the Basin Plan to ransom,” he said.

“What does it matter if SA gets water from farmers (without the offsets) or from efficiencies and rule changes?”

Many have argued buybacks reduces the prosperity of regional economies and even threatens smaller towns.

Parliament will vote on a move to block approval of a range of water efficiency measures.

Parliament will vote on a move to block approval of a range of water efficiency measures.

“Listening to them carry on, you would swear its 2000-odd gigalitres with with the offsets or 2750 without it. It’s not, it’s the same. But it’s less toxic to the local economies with the offsets,” Mr Gardiner said.

Phil Snowden is chairman of Australia’s largest private irrigation company, which supplies farmers in the Southern Basin.

He said the Basin Plan was “a rare national consensus” to deliver better water management which was being harmed by disruption.

“Our environmental and commercial water users cannot develop long term objectives, nor decide rural investment options when the body set up to deliver water reform is being undermined.

“It’s outrageous that after so much science, planning, modelling and assessment, the work of the MDBA is being devalued by political opportunism.

Mr Gardiner said while significant economic and environmental benefits flowed from on-farm investment programs, where a portion of an irrigators entitlements were handed back to the Commonwealth in return for investment in water efficient systems, the erratic Basin Plan process was holding farmers back.

“No one can commit to another 15 years or so of investment and debt when there’s so much uncertainty around the water rules,” he said.

A coalition of irrigators representatives, including National Irrigators Council, National Farmers Federation, NSW Irrigators, Southern Riverina Irrigators, Bega Cheese, Cotton Australia and Border Rivers Food and Fibre wrote to politicians imploring them to reject both of the disallowance motions.

“While not everyone in the Basin likes the Plan, everyone has been working towards achieving it and delivering a balanced plan,” the letter said.

“Today that hangs in the balance and we are concerned that we are on the verge of seeing the efforts of many thrown away compromising future environmental outcomes.

“Both the Northern Basin Review (NBR) and the Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism (offsets) have been designed to require changes to system management to ensure environmental outcomes can be maximised.”

​Mr Hunter said he would not support the Northern Basin reduction until NSW and Victoria made “real commitments” to recovering the 2750GL, and a second tranche of 450GL known as ‘upwater’.

“NSW and Victoria’s commitment to Australia’s most significant river system is in disarray,” he said.

“The South Australian Government has withdrawn support for any amendments to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan until real commitments are made on delivering the 3200GL Basin Plan on time and in full.”

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