FARMING representatives say a pivotal meeting of senior water ministers has progressed practical changes to the Murray Darling Basin Plan by increasing the pragmatic flexibility of environmental water recovery targets, to avoid damaging agricultural production.
Last Friday, State and Commonwealth Water Ministers met in Brisbane for a forum, Chaired by Federal Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce.
Leading into the meeting, pressure was applied by various interest groups to maintain environmental standards in implementing the Plan’s baseline target of 2750 gigalitres in Sustainable Diversion Limits (SDLs) and another 450GLs for SA.
But farming groups had also called for the continuation of a balanced approach to water recovery measures, to protect the livelihood of irrigation and farming communities.
National Irrigators Council Chair Gavin McMahon welcomed the ministers reaching an agreement at the forum, to amend the Basin Plan and provide for a second round of projects by June 30 next year, under the important SDL adjustment mechanism.
Mr McMahon said that “sensible decision” would allow further time for a second round of projects to be developed, in addition to those already put forward, to maximise all supply contributions under the mechanism.
“This approach will enable communities and governments to work together to reach an outcome with minimal impact with the aim of a reduction in water being removed from communities,” he said.
“The NIC has long argued for flexibility around timelines that would enable the required work to be done on project proposals to gain maximum benefit and to enable all possible supply contributions to be achieved towards meeting the 650GLs target under the SDL adjustment mechanism.”
The Basin Plan was signed into law in 2012 with the ALP and Coalition agreeing to pass legislation to sideline the Green’s demands for a minimum 4000GLs in SDLs.
SLDs are due to come into effect in 2019, while a first round of adjustment proposals by States is due in June this year.
The NIC said an SDL adjustment mechanism stocktake report released by Basin ministers in August 2015 found a supply contribution of around 500GLs towards an outcome of up to 650GLs.
Mr McMahon said the Council had always stressed Basin Plan reforms should not focus solely on water as the singular management tool but must include various measures that give equal balance to food and fibre production – the socio and economic outcomes for communities and the environment.
“We will continue to voice our support for investment in infrastructure and the modernisation of irrigation systems that provide water savings resulting in broader flow on benefits to irrigated agriculture and the communities supported by the industry,” he said.
National Farmers’ Federation Water Taskforce Chair Les Gordon said the package of measures agreed to at last Friday’s meeting would lead to more realistic management of the Basin and deliver positive outcomes for regional communities.
Mr Gordon said the projects allowed for a significant reduction in the amount of water recovery required to achieve Basin Plan outcomes which was good news for both the environment and communities for which the Basin “is the lifeblood”.
“We absolutely recognise that we need to achieve triple bottom line outcomes in implementing the Basin Plan that measure performance against economic, social and environmental parameters and this is a clear step towards that,” he said.
“Recognition by the ministers of the importance of non-flow complementary activities to achieve environmental outcomes including carp control, cold water pollution and fish ladders will also significantly contribute to what can be achieved.”
At a press conference in Wagga Wagga on Friday, Mr Joyce said he didn’t want to get into the “nuts and bolts” of the meeting but was pleased NSW and Victoria had signed off on the process forward, for the Basin Plan’s implementation.
He said that process would take the government through caretaker mode for the upcoming election and alleviated the effects of the previous government which was “basically their solution to everything was, buy the water and send the town broke”.
“It’s very reliant on us to make sure, and we will, to look after the farmers and to look after the social and economic fabric of the towns,” he said.
“It was a hard battle by the National Party to get Water Resources brought back into Agriculture and since then we’ve made sure changes are coming about, so we can start to get a better outcome for the social and economic fabric of irrigation towns throughout the Riverina and throughout our nation.
“We make sure that in providing an environmental outcome that we leave our towns in a position where they have a strong and vibrant future.
“We’ve managed to get all the State ministers on the same page.”
Mr Joyce said the government would ensure works and measures implemented under the Basin Plan, to deliver water to environmental assets, were the most effective and efficient ones possible and also maximised water availability for crop production.
“We understand that if the farmers make money, the tyre dealers make money, if the farmers make money, the shops make money (and) the economy makes money,” he said.
“We’ve made changes to the legislation and technical capacity of how the Basin Plan would work so we get the most efficient use of an environmental outcome that will leave water with the economic base of the community and that was part of the ministerial council meeting today.
“I’m not here to read the mind of the Greens.
“I tried that once and it was a terrible experience - a horrible headache - but we all got better.”
However, Australian Conservation Foundation Healthy Ecosystems Program Manager Jonathan La Nauze said the meeting delivered mixed results for the Basin Plan.
La Nauze said irrigators should be happy with the decision which paved the way for a “whopping” 500GLs increase in the consumptive pool and unlocked an extra $1.5 billion for efficiency projects.
But he said “sadly” the health of rivers, fish and waterbirds was less certain because ministers had decided to delay incorporating an extra 450GLs of environmental water into diversion limits until as late as 2024.
“It’s a lopsided agreement where outcomes for industry are delivered up front whilst the community will have to wait another eight years to see whether our rivers get the water they’ve been promised,” he said.
Cotton Australia General Manager Michael Murray said agreements reached at last week’s meeting meant all governments must now commit to the full delivery of the 650Gl in SDL offset projects.
He said the upcoming Northern Basin review also offered a genuine opportunity for lower levels of water recovery but better environmental outcomes.
"Northern Basin communities strongly believe that the Northern Basin review has the real capacity to deliver lower water recovery targets, particularly if non-flow complementary environmental projects such as carp control and fish habitat improvement, among others, are included,” he said.
"Lower water recovery, with complementary measures, will mean enhanced environmental outcomes with significantly reduced social and economic impact on our irrigation communities.”
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