A funding pool of $1.5 billion is on offer for water recovery projects across the Murray Darling Basin and the Federal Water Department is starting to splash out.
The Murray-Darling Basin Water Infrastructure Program is open to tenders from all Basin urban, industrial and water metering projects. On-farm works are included in the tenders - but only in the ACT, Queensland, Victoria and South Australia. More on the later.
Any eligible water rights holders can apply for funding to to upgrade or build new infrastructure that saves water - such as a housing development using urban water with less wastage, upgrading industrial plant to use less water, or improving irrigation to increase water use efficiency.
Project proponents apply with a target volume, receive funding if successful, and they keep additional water savings - if there are any.
The Water Infrastructure Program is responsible for recovering the 450 gigalitre bucket of so-called ‘upwater’, which is a particular tranche of the Basin Plan to return consumptive use to the environment. Upwater can only be recovered if it has no negative socio-economic impacts.
This is the third tender for water recovery. The program opened for business in July. No project approvals have been announced to date, as the Department is still assessing applications from the first two rounds.
The Department is keeping the tender rounds short to reduce the assessment period and increase the rate of project approvals.
Applications to this round of funding close on October 2. Three more tenders are planned through to January 25, 2019. The program can remain open until 2024.
In July the Ministerial Council of Basin States resolved to develop new test of socio-economic impacts of upwater recovery projects, responding to concerns the current criteria only assessed the impact of water recovery on a farm-by-farm basis, rather than on a regional scale.
On-farm infrastructure schemes have been mooted as the prime source of the upwater.
Community and farm representatives have urged a focus on off-farm recovery methods, citing concerns that reduced irrigation entitlements will cripple local economies.
That’s why the two socio-economic hotspots, Victoria and NSW, are not eligible for on-farm recovery in this round of tenders. The two states are developing a new socio-economic test.
Meanwhile, the current criteria is in use and it’s expected NSW and Victoria won’t participate until a new test is ready.
A point to note is that Water Minister David Littleproud, speaking after the Ministerial Council, emphasised a priority on recovering off-farm sources for upwater.
He referenced a report from Auditors Ernst and Young that estimated up to 370GL could come from off farm. Privately, some irrigators have questioned that figure.
And while many in the farm community acknowledge the need to balance economic impacts with water recovery,there’s significant interest in swapping water rights for funding from irrigators across the Basin.
For Basin Plan boffins, here’s a breakdown of some upwater facts and figures.
The Ministerial Council resolved to deliver by June next year up to 62GL of the upwater, with around 25GL to 30GL coming from identified on-farm and stormwater works, and more than 35GL to come from NSW – which look likely to come from off-farm and toolkit measures in the Northern Basin.
Up to 24GL is sought from key Northern Basin catchments - the Namoi, Border Rivers, Condamine-Balonne and Barwon-Darling, where the northern Basin review identified amended sustainable diversion limit (SDL) requirements still needing to be met.
That leaves 388GL to go with a deadline of June 2024.