GOVERNMENT compensation to support vulnerable regional towns in the firing line of productive water cuts under the Murray Darling Basin Plan will remain a priority, despite a proposed reduction in the Northern Basin’s legislated water recovery target.
Murray Darling Basin Authority CEO Phil Glyde wrote to relevant water ministers late last week recommending the Northern Basin’s target be reduced by 70 gigalitres (GL) from 390GL to 320GL.
That recommendation comes after an extensive research and consultation process involving farming and environmental groups over the past four years which is now reaching a crescendo.
It will ultimately see Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce table amendments to the Basin Plan in the federal parliament in July or August, which can be challenged politically, as a disallowable instrument.
Mr Glyde said due to the MDBA’s extensive consultation process, stakeholders and other factions would now be aware of all the arguments for and against the proposed 70GL reduction.
“But I’d expect with every decision to do water there will always be people who think we don’t go far enough or have gone too far so I’d expect there will continue to be some sort of political debate,” he said.
Mr Glyde said the 70GL proposal would reduce the extent of economic and social impacts driven by productive water losses for Dirranbandi and St George but compensation was still critical; including for flow on businesses.
During the economic research underpinning the potential adjustment to the Northern Basin’s water recovery target, an MDBA report said the total number of jobs to be lost in Dirranbandi and St George under the 320GL scenario was projected at 132 – down from 205 under the current settings, at 390GL.
The 320GL target would reduce job losses by 15 in Dirranbandi and 54 in the St George area, the research said.
The overall recovery for the Condamine Balonne would be reduced by 42GL under the 320GL scenario, and while the local recovery target remains unchanged at 100GL, the shared reduction reduces from 42GL to zero.
Mr Glyde said St George or Dirranbandi would still feel economic and consequential social impacts, due to the proposed 70GL.
“It’s a lot better than what was proposed in the original plan but it will still have a significant impact,” he said.
“That’s why we’ve called for, in addition to these tool kit measures, governments to collectively consider some sort of assistance to those communities that are particularly badly affected and St George and Dirranbandi are two communities that are particularly affected by the rebalancing of the water, in the basin.”
Mr Glyde said the two towns would mostly be impacted by the loss of water for cotton production.
“If you lose the water and cotton production goes down, that then has the flow on affects which we’ve documented in terms of job numbers, into towns where the people who supply the agricultural industry and general economy, groceries and fuel etc are also impacted,” he said.
“While we’ve reduced the size of that impact, it’s still a significant impact.”
Farm reaction mixed
Farm groups had asked the Northern Basin’s target be halted at the current recovered volume of 278GL that’s been taken from productive water use and Mr Glyde said he expected a “mixed” reaction from them, to the 70GL recommendation.
He said farm groups would be happy about the proposed tool kit or non-flow water recovery measures and the 70GL reduction in the overall northern water recovery target but their preference was for no more recovery.
Mr Glyde has said previously the proposed amendment to lower the Northern Basin’s SDL target from 390GLs to 320GLs would also see the Basin Plan’s overall baseline “number” lowered from 2750GLs to 2680GLs, in Sustainable Diversion Limits (SDLs).
“It’s a really fundamental change and the best thing about the northern Basin review is it demonstrates clearly that the Basin Plan is adaptive,” he said he said earlier this year on the plan legislated by former Labor Water Minister Tony Burke in late 2012.
Mr Glyde said the 70GL recommendation had resulted from “a lot of work”.
He said the reason why no change was made to a proposal of 70GLs during the northern review process, issued several months ago, was because “we’re confident in the work we’ve done”.,
He said that research work included looking at environmental, economic, hydrological and social scenarios of water recovery targets and a year’s worth of consultation including stakeholder engagement to test the proposed scenarios.
“By the time we got to the point of making a recommendation in November last year we were pretty confident that we’d got all of the info and data we needed and that’s been confirmed in the public submission process which ran from November through to February,” he said.
“Whilst people want more or less water returned to the environment and those views remained, there was no new information that people could bring forward that would cause us to change away from that balanced position.
“We’re pretty confident in it (70GL proposal) and accordingly we’ve advised the state ministers.”
Mr Glyde said non-flow measures remained critical to the process of recovering water, to avoid damaging farm communities and achieve a balanced outcome.
“It’s not just about volumes of water and flows,” he said.
“It’s also about integrated river management – those tool kit measures or complementary measures…that give us greater confidence that you can get the triple bottom line outcomes of environment and economic and community growth.
“We still think they’re critical and we’re well advanced with the states to get their commitment.”
Mr Glyde said the MDBA had written to states last Thursday, informing them of the 70GL recommendation and they now had six weeks to respond and if that response contained anything new, “we have to consider our position”.
“We take on board their comments - then as soon as we can we provide advice to Minister Joyce and if he agrees to our advice, as to the amendment, he’ll introduce that into the parliament,” he said.
“It’s a disallowable instrument - and it takes effect from the moment he introduces it - but there is that disallowable period.
“We’re hoping if everything goes to plan around July or August he’ll be introducing an amendment to the Basin Plan that will reduce the SDL number by 70GLs.
“It’s an amendment and the amendment itself is a disallowable instrument.”
The process will require commitments from the Australian, Queensland and NSW governments to implement toolkit measures for the Northern Basin.
Mr Glyde said the MDBA was also proposing other changes to groundwater systems and other minor practical changes to streamline implementation and make the roll-out of the Basin Plan more effective and efficient.
“Through both our research and consultation results, we believe the recommended amendments strike the right balance for the health and production of the Basin,” he said.
“The recommendations are now with the Ministerial Council members for response and then a final recommendation will be delivered to the Australian Government Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources.”