THE waters of Murray-Darling politics are often choppy, but farm industry and regional councils are optimistic the nation's water ministers are in calmer seas after this morning’s Ministerial Council meeting at Mildura.
State and federal water ministers emerged far more sanguine from today’s conference than the heated November edition in Adelaide, when South Australia’s Environment Minister Ian Hunter launched a tirade over the prospect of less water reaching the mouth of the Murray.
This time, ministers - including chair Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and assistant water and ag minister Anne Ruston, as well as basin state counterparts Niall Blair (NSW), Lisa Neville (Victoria), Mr Hunter (SA), and Dr Anthony Lynham (QLD) - have agreed to examine the capacity to achieve a 650GL sustainable diversion limit, and further study the economic and social impacts of the 450GL upwater target.
The MDBA communique announced the Ministerial Council have agreed to present COAG a plan outlining a ‘credible and balanced’ way forward on:
- Supply measures to offset the Basin Plan water recovery target of 2750GL by 2019 using the sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism;
- Constraints measures to address impediments to delivering environmental water; and
- Efficiency measures to recover an additional 450GL upwater by 2024, consistent with legal requirement to achieve neutral or improved socio-economic outcomes.
The plan will be presented in June, and also released to the community.
Mr Blair said the Ministerial Council was close to confirming that no productive water “would come out on the SDL side of things” while governments were committed to further socio-economic studies on the impact of clawing back more water from the Northern Basin.
“Importantly, today in Mildura, the Ministerial Council agreed on a credible path forward – this is a positive step and the task now is to speak with people in the NSW Basin about how best to achieve it,” Mr Blair said.
National Irrigators’ Council chief executive Steve Whan said the mood was encouraging.
“I would say there is obviously a long way to go before irrigators and basin communities can feel secure about where it is going… but we weclome the cautious optimism the ministers seem to be expressing,” Mr Whan said.
“It does seem that there has been some good work done.
“The other positive as that it was quite a quick meeting - conducted in quite a cooperative spirit. It does appear it has come a long way in what can be very difficult and complex negotiations.”
The Ministerial Council also announced its appreciation of Aboriginal, environmental, local government and agricultural industry representatives who turned out for a roundtable discussion on Thursday night.
Murray Darling Association executive officer Emma Bradbury - also representing the Riverina and Murray Region of Councils and the Murray River Group of Councils on the night - reported the Ministerial Council was more open to discussing impacts at a local government level.
"For the first time at a Ministerial Council meeting, local government and other groups had a chance to present their concerns, issues and ideas to the Ministers on the Murray Darling Basin,” Ms Bradbury said.
“The point we made was that local government is the third, and very important tier of government where the outcomes of Basin Plan decisions are felt first, and the most".
"Due to our on-the-ground representation of people in the Murray-Darling Basin, we need to be in that front row of decision making people and providing input into how those decisions are made".
The next meeting of the Ministerial Council will be held in Canberra in June.