The final round of Murray Darling water recovery is shaping as a critical test for the three most controversial elements of the the Murray Darling Basin Plan - environmental, social and economic.
Water Minister David Littleproud has opened public applications for the $1.5 billion 'upwater' program - which is Basin Plan jargon for a process to deliver a 450 gigalitre bucket of water back into environmental flows bound for South Australia.
When the Basin Plan was created in 2012 the Commonwealth planned to recover upwater through voluntary water buybacks and infrastructure investments, where irrigators swap water entitlements for on-farm upgrades.
But a deal cut by NSW and Victoria's Water Ministers with SA in December last year banned upwater buybacks and created strict conditions for on-farm water recovery. Now the proponent must prove their project proposal would not have a negative socio-economic impact on the local region.
Previously, the proponent only needed to demonstrate the project would not have a negative impact on their farm - which was unlikely given they would get paid.
"We now move forward to recover environmental water whilst delivering positive or neutral social and economic outcomes, at local and regional level," Mr Littleproud said last week.
NSW and Victoria's upwater reform came in response to community outcry over fears that further reductions to irrigation would cripple already struggling river towns. When SA accepted the deal, it received funding to kickstart its desalination plant, investigate renewable energy grids, and environmental projects in the Coorong Wetlands.
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A report from consultants Ernst and Young to the federal government in January 2018 forecast the 450GL of upwater could be secured from a mix of targeted on-farm projects, savings through upgrading metering and monitoring equipment, and urban stormwater harvesting. The forecast was theoretical and savings measures haven't been tested.
The upwater deal is a risk for SA. If on-farm deals don't pass the new test, and the storm water and metering projects prove insufficient, a new scheme to deliver 450GL of downstream flows must be found.
Upwater recovery has been controversial from the beginning of the Basin Plan. It was designed to deliver held entitlements to the Commonwealth Environment Water Holder (CEWH), who is in charge of managing flow for fish, wetlands and the rest of the river system.
Former CEWH David Papps said last year the upwater reforms were "done it bad faith" and undermined the Basin Plan's original objectives.
"The foundation principle behind the Basin Plan was that the environment, represented by CEWH, had access to water entitlements in the same way irrigators do, with the same sense of certainty that gives you. Who knows what water will come from the urban projects and any other off-farm initiatives?," Mr Papps said after the Minco deal last year.