As the eastern states reel from last week’s Northern Basin disallowance motion, an even more controversial disallowance motion rests on the Senate’s books.
Last week Labor, the Greens and some of the Crossbench voted to block the Northern Basin amendment, recommended by the Murray Darling Basin Authority, which would have reduced recovery by 70 gigaltires, from 390GL to 320GL.
The federal and state governments are scrambling to figure out what happens next: can NSW and Victoria make good their threat to withdraw from the Basin Plan? Can they go it alone? Or can a new compromise be achieved?
But an even bigger risk to the future health and wellbeing of the Basin Plan approaches on May 8.
That’s when the Greens second disallowance motion is due for a vote.
With the urgent backing of Labor’s South Australian Water Minister Ian Hunter, the Greens have proposed to disallow the government’s approval of the Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism projects.
Confused by the jargon? You aren’t the only one. Let me explain.
These ‘adjustment projects’ are essentially upgrades to infrastructure or river operations to move water more efficiently.
Moving water more efficiently sends more of it to where it's needed and less being lost in evaporation.
The MDBA has calculated that the 37 offset projects nominated between NSW, Queensland, Victoria and SA can reduce the recovery target of 2750GL by 605GL (this is where the numbers come in, but stick with it and I’ll fill you in).
Offset projects include new works to increase the effectiveness of wetland inundation with with environment water such as the construction of levees, regulators and a pipeline at Victoria’s Belsar-Yungera Floodplain, reconfiguring weirs in Gunbower forest and re-engineering Menindee Lakes to reduce evaporation.
The efficiencies gained by through these projects enable irrigation cutbacks to be reduced (there’s more detail here on the MDBA website) https://www.mdba.gov.au/basin-plan-roll-out/proposed-adjustment-sustainable-diversion-limits
Here’s how the numbers work: the Basin Plan requires irrigation be cut to meet the Sustainable Diversion Limit of 10,873GL a year (the overall flow into the Basin’s waterways each year, on average, is 32,500GL by the way).
The Sustainable Diversion Limit is another way of saying “the volume of water which the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) says is the amount that can be taken while maintaining a healthy river system”.
That’s the point of Basin Plan, which was brought in because the Millenium Drought highlighted the unhealthy over-allocation of the Basin’s water.
So the MDBA did the calculations and determined that irrigation should be reduced by 2750GL (this figure is the recovery target I told you about before).
It would significantly reduced SA’s local production of grapes for wine and table, fruit and vegetables
The bulk of the 2750GL, around 2100GL or so, has already been recovered through direct buybacks, or co-investments between the Commonwealth and farmers to swap water entitlements for on-farm upgrades.
Without diving yet deeper into detail, that means the 605GL slated to come through offset projects can deliver the rest of the water reduction - without the need for further irrigation cuts.
And here’s where it gets really interesting.
In June last year, Mr Hunter signed up with along with his colleagues on the Basin Plan Ministerial Council to endorse the suite of offset projects.
By December last year Mr Hunter had changed his tune.
He has cited worries shared by the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists that the offset projects are based on rubbery figures and poor planning.
He also accused the eastern states of working with SA only to the point where offset projects were approved by the MDBA, but then stopping short of the ‘upwater’ recovery (it’s a long story but suffice to say upwater is a second bucket to be filled and poured over the SA border).
Mr Hunter withdrew his support for the offset projects and called for them to be blocked in the Senate. If that happens, to meet the legislated deadlines for water recovery built into the Basin Plan, more buybacks will be on the cards.
And while each state’s irrigators were set share in the spoils of the offset projects, they will all share in the reduction of irrigation entitlements if the Senate blocks them.
Around 40GL more would be required from SA.
National Irrigators chief executive Steve Whan pointed out SA’s regional economies be hit with job losses and Adelaide residents would have less local produce on offer, with higher prices.
“Under the legislation SA itself would be forced to take more water of its local irrigators. Around 40GL more would have to be taken out of production,” Mr Whan said.
“That is the equivalent of completely closing down the Barossa and Loxton Irrigation schemes.
“It would be an action which significantly reduced SA’s local production of grapes for wine and table, fruit and vegetables.”
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