Explainer

Questions raised over Murray-Darling Basin Plan water buyback possibilities

Jamieson Murphy
By Jamieson Murphy
March 6 2022 - 7:00pm
Will water buybacks be enforced in 2024 if recovery targets fall short?

It is the conversation no one wants to have, because there are no easy answers - what happens if the nation can't meet its Murray-Darling Basin water recovery targets by 2024?

Despite assurances from the government, the agriculture sector and the regional communities that it supports are living in fear the wildly unpopular policy of water buybacks will be enforced.

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Several reports and reviews have raised grave concerns the Murray-Darling Basin Plan will not achieve its water recovery targets by June 2024, while the NSW and Victorian governments have admitted it's unlikely all their water saving projects will be delivered on time.

If the water targets are not met, there are three options - none of which would be popular; buybacks, extending deadlines or proving the environmental objectives have been achieved without recovering the full amount of water.

Legislation states that if the recovery targets are not reached by mid-2024, when the plan is due to end, the federal government will be forced to revert back water buybacks.

However, Water Minister Keith Pitt has promised there will be no water buybacks under the Coalition, despite refusing to enshrine the promise in law with the necessary legislative changes.

Neither major party has hinted at what option it would support should the targets not be achieved, as none would have widespread support and each presents its own unique political danger.

The government has acknowledged it will be a challenge to deliver the plan on time, without suggesting what it will do if it falls short, while Labor is yet to release any Murray-Darling Basin Plan policies, but promises it will do so before the election.

The MDBP is severely behind on its two Sustainable Diversion Limit (SDL) water recovery targets.

The first is the 450 gigalitres to be recovered through efficiency measures that must be either socio-economically neutral or positive, such as upgrading on-farm irrigation or lining channels to reduce water losses. However, failing the 450GL target won't trigger water buybacks.

The second is 605GL of supply and constraint projects.

Supply projects are designed to improve river management, so environmental outcomes are achieved with less water. Constraint projects aim for higher flows to be released through changes to physical features such as crossings and bridges. They can also involve changes to river operating practices. If the 605GL target is not achieved, it will trigger buybacks.

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority's latest report card found "reaching the full 450GL target will be challenging", while seven supply and constraint projects - which represent a quarter of the required recovered water - are not on track and "at significant risk of not being operational by June 2024".

On top of the delayed SDL projects, the basin is facing reduced flows, which will make recovering the required water even more difficult.

The MDBP was established in 2012, before the country began to feel the noticeable effects of climate change.

A number of recent reports have indicated the basin's inflows have already decreased by 51pc in the past 20 years, compared to the 100 years before.

CSIRO modelling suggests for every degree of global warming, the basin's inflows will reduce by a further 10pc.

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Which leads back to the question, what will happen if the plan falls short of its targets in two years' time?

Water buybacks are the first option.

The Coalition has promised not to, but the legislation says otherwise.

Despite the united front, there are also internal divisions between the Nationals and Liberals when it comes to buybacks.

The Nationals are concerned about the impact of buybacks in rural communities. However, the Liberals don't want to have their environmental credentials questioned, and although buybacks are incredibly unpopular in (often safe) National-held seats, the idea is welcomed in South Australia, where the Nationals have no presence, including marginal electorates such as Boothby.

The next option is extending the deadline for projects. Deadlines for various aspects of the MDBP have been extended numerous times, and continued extensions run the risk of making deadlines meaningless.

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Progress also has to be demonstrated to justify an extension. Even with an extension, some projects may deliver less water than expected, particularly with the basin experiencing less inflows due to climate change.

The third option is reducing the recovery targets, which would only be possible if the government can prove it has achieved the environmental targets set out in the plan, despite not achieving the required amount of environmental water.

It would be a complicated and drawn-out affair, and one that should be started sooner rather than later. Many environmentalists would argue that with climate change reducing inflows, more water is needed for the environment to achieve the original goals.

The National Farmers' Federation does not believe the 450GL recovery target can be achieved from the consumptive pool or from river operations, and therefore does not support it.

NFF water committee chair Malcolm Holm said the world had moved on from when the MDBP was established in 2012, and it must adapt to new circumstances.

"The next government will preside over the critical 2024 reconciliation and there have been no answers to how this issue will be addressed," Mr Holm said.

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"All parties must be upfront and honest about their intentions leading up to the election. Basin communities deserve nothing less as they grapple with their futures."

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Jamieson Murphy

Jamieson Murphy

National Rural Affairs reporter

National Rural Affairs reporter, focusing on rural politics and issues. Whisper g'day mate to me at jamieson.murphy@austcommunitymedia.com.au

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