A critical meeting of state ministers in Canberra today could set the course for another round of water recovery under the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
The meeting will discuss plans for recovery of the controversial ‘upwater’ element of the Basin Plan, which Commonwealth law says must be completed by 2024.
The Basin Plan was designed to deliver environmental benefits equivalent to returning 3200 gigalitres of water to the environment.
The Plan has two big buckets of water to fill: 2750 gigalitres worth of so-called ‘downwater’ and 450GL of ‘upwater’.
The crucial point about upwater is the Basin Plan rules require that water recovery from productive use does not have net negative impacts on Basin communities.
Local governments, farmer representatives and community groups have been speaking out, saying their economies are already faltering under the economic impacts of reduced irrigation.
They’re urging the ministers to steer a course away from on-farm recovery schemes and towards off-recovery methods – like recycling stormwater from urban areas in the Basin, or returning water from industrial use.
“Irrigators want to see strong acknowledgement from ministers that on-farm efficiency projects can have flow on impacts in communities and districts,” said National Irrigators Council chief executive Steve Whan.
Federal Water Minister David Littleproud issued a statement last night which was clearly directed at regional communities.
“The 450GL will only be delivered with neutral or positive social and economic outcomes,” Mr Littleproud said.
The upwater debate was spurred along in January, when consultant Ernst and Young delivered a report on the socio-economic impacts from upwater recovery to the Murray Darling Basin Authority.
It said the 450GL bucket could be filled with neutral or positive socio-economic impacts, through a mix of on-and-off-farm recovery schemes.
On-farm recovery is particularly troubling for large owner-operated irrigation schemes, where a reduction in water could see the number of farmer-customers dip below a critical mass needed to fund delivery infrastructure.
Victorian Farmers Federation water council chairman Richard Anderson said the criteria the Basin Plan uses to assess socio-economic impacts are flawed, measuring impacts on an individual basis rather than a local community level.
“We need Ministers in the meeting on Friday to amend the socio-economic test to ensure jobs in irrigation and agricultural communities are protected, to save our local communities from more hardship,” Mr Anderson said.
“Victoria is on a knife’s edge and the delivery of the 450GL without firmer criteria puts the region and local jobs at risk.”
He warned further on-farm recovery would cause dairy production to drop by 235 million litres of milk, resulting in losses of $100 million in farm gate losses and $200m factory production.
He said water prices in the Goulburn Murray Irrigation District would rise $30 a megalitre and a further 500 jobs would be lost and warned that demand for water in a dry year across the southern basin would outstrip supply.
Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville shares Mr Anderson’s concerns.
She will ask her colleagues in the Ministerial Council to work together on a plan to complete the 450GL upwater recovery through off-farm works.
“We’ll take off-farm projects to the table in Canberra that we can deliver — but we will not commit to on-farm works, which will just hurt Victorian communities,” Ms Neville said.
While the upwater recovery is yet to kick off, the 2750GL of ‘downwater’ bucket is nearly full. It came in three ways:
- Direct buybacks of water entitlements from irrigators.
- Commonwealth investment schemes that swap a portion of an irrigators water holdings for financial contributions to make farm infrastructure more efficient.
- Offset projects – which are river works and measures that move water more to environmental assets like wetlands more efficiently.
The states recently had their plans for 37 offset projects approved by the MDBA, which means if they work out as expected, no further downwater recovery is needed.