BASIN communities feel "over-consulted and under-listened to", but remain open to supporting the Murray Darling Basin water reforms, an independent report has found.
The socio-economic assessment Murray-Darling Basin conditions found mental health, front-line services, trust in the government and water reform were the top-line priorities.
The government-appointed independent panel behind the report made 20 draft recommendations and is seeking community feedback on its suggestions.
Independent chair Robbie Sefton said the panel's role was to listen, understand and articulate what was happening on the ground as a result of the Murray Darling Basin Plan's implementation.
"We heard from people caught in a one-way conversation - over-consulted and under-listened to," Ms Sefton said.
"They were frustrated that decisions are being made for them, often with short-term objectives as the predominant driver."
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Despite the frustrations, the report found "above all, many basin communities remain open to supporting Basin water reform".
"It was clear that people do recognise the importance of enhanced environmental outcomes in maintaining a healthy working river and improving conditions for basin communities," Ms Sefton said.
"They just hope the plan is fair and equitable for all and managed soundly. For this outcome to occur, affected communities must be at the heart of decisions deciding their future."
The panel wants feedback from basin communities, farmers, community groups and First Nation groups about the recommendations.
"Now is the time to contribute to help shape and influence the conversation with government on next steps for the Murray-Darling Basin," Ms Sefton said.
Submissions are open until close of business on Sunday, April 5.
The final report will be delivered to Water Minister Keith Pitt at the end of April. To view the draft report or to make a submission, visit www.basin-socio-economic.com.au.
All Basin governments commit to providing greater clarity and certainty around long-term policy to build trust.
Slowing further recovery in the Basin, and accelerating efforts to relax delivery constraints.
The Australian Government should extend the Murray-Darling Basin Economic Development Program beyond its 2023 completion date, and increase its scale.
The Australian Government should prioritise future investment in the Murray-Darling Basin Economic Development Program in vulnerable and disadvantaged communities most negatively impacted by Basin water reforms.
Where an upwater recovery proposal fails to meet established neutrality criteria, this failure should trigger a formal process to consider and agree on whether and how third party impacts could be offset in a way that is acceptable to those negatively affected by the change. This process must be community led.
Reflecting community concerns, Basin governments should continue addressing deliverability constraints as a priority.
Improve water security planning and investment for Basin towns and cities.
The Australian Government should develop regional pilot programs for alternative urban supply sources, including indirect potable reuse.
Governments should do more to increase First Nations communities' access to water for cultural and economic purposes
The Australian Government (potentially in partnership with state governments) should fund First Nations groups to work with experts in valuing ecosystem services provided by, and the benefits arising from, culturally significant sites
Basin governments should work to better embed and mainstream First Nations participation in water policy and planning at all levels over the long term.
To improve decision making and enable well focused and timely responses to wellbeing concerns, governments should agree on a framework to more regularly monitor and, where feasible, develop improved and more granular indicators of community wellbeing in the Basin.
Basin governments should fund a program for First Nations groups to build a baseline and track social and economic conditions, and water reform outcomes.
Improvements in monitoring and evaluation should include creating a solid baseline and tracking environmental outcomes from water reform, and how these impact Basin communities' social and economic wellbeing.
In response to the emerging risks in Basin, increase the focus and funding of research and innovation
Governments should consider developing a Basin-specific infrastructure fund, with a focus on digital connectivity. Basin communities already have a significant infrastructure deficit, and they should not have to compete with other regions in a new fund.
Community Service Obligations may be helpful in some circumstances to clarify future service requirements and how costs are shared when off-farm infrastructure is provided to achieve water recovery.
Basin governments should direct resources to attract and retain frontline service providers that specialise in addressing household distress, mental health issues, and financial hardship, in Basin locations experiencing acute social or economic issues.
Governments need to work with communities in the Basin with acute social and economic issues to develop action and outcome plans that will address these issues over the next three years. Such plans should build on any existing plans and be driven by local communities that are provided with additional skills and expertise to help them develop long term (say, two to three decades) and short term (up to 10 years) tailored plans.