Tenders are open to water recovery project proposals, with $1.5 billion of Commonwealth money available through the Murray Darling Basin Plan for public and private infrastructure and on-farm projects.
The Basin Plan requires 450 gigaltires of ‘upwater’ is recovered from consumptive use to meet flow rate targets into South Australia, with the condition that the water comes without negative socio-economic impacts.
“The Murray Darling Basin Water Infrastructure Program is a vital part of the Plan to restore the health of the Murray Darling Basin, while protecting Basin communities and their economies,” Federal Water MInister David Littleproud said.
“We’re looking for businesses and organisations across the Basin that want to modernise their water infrastructure through off-farm, urban and industrial projects.”
Upwater recovery is a controversial element of the Basin Plan.
Under community pressure, the NSW and Victorian water ministers went to the Ministerial Council meeting of Basin states last month and secured agreement that the Commonwealth would rule out recovery from farm irrigators in their jurisdictions.
But in Queensland, South Australia and the ACT farmers can apply for funding to upgrade their infrastructure in return for their water entitlements.
But in NSW and Vic, the Commonwealth will only fund savings from off-farm sources like stormwater harvesting in urban areas and investing in more efficient industrial infrastructure.
An Ernst and Young report to the Murray Darling Basin Authority in January noted that off-farm water could deliver around 350GL of savings to the environment.
If that forecast turns out to be over-ambitious, more on-farm water will be on the cards.
Communities and farm groups have also been concerned that the Basin Plan’s criteria to assess socio-economic impact of water recovery did not adequately account for the impact on town economies.
The states agreed that NSW and Victoria would develop a new model which shifts focus from the current farm-by-farm criteria to a broader community-scale test.
However, that could leave the door open for beneficial on-farm recovery schemes in NSW and Victoria down the track.
The Victorian election is in November, after which there may be some clear air to consider the potential benefits for targeted on-farm schemes
At some point the farm sector will have to confront the buying power of large consolidated agribusiness and the impact on water prices from the increasing demand for water entitlements - especially permanent plantings in the Southern Basin.
Australian Bureau of Statistics data show irrigation consolidation is moving apace. The number of irrigators has halved since 2005, falling from 44800 irrigation businesses to 22,100 in 2017.
A Commonwealth injection of efficiency funds may be required to keep traditional sectors that are now struggling, such as dairy, competitive with larger, more efficient irrigators that can afford to shell out more for water.