A RARE display of bipartisan co-operation between the NSW Coalition and Victorian Labor governments offers a potential turning point in the battle over water buybacks.
Bridging the political divide, the NSW and Vic have commissioned an independent expert panel to review the Murray Darling Basin Authority’s (MDBA) modelling methods, or calculations for water recovery under the Basin Plan.
The MDBA was formed under the Water Act in 2012 to administer the Basin Plan - which was drawn up to restore water to the environment and address over-recovery in the massive river system.
A joint statement from NSW Regional Water Minister Niall Blair and Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville said their panel’s review would investigate “a lack of transparency around the assumptions” in the MDBA’s calculations.
The calculations, or modelling, in question could determine if a fresh round of irrigation entitlement buybacks will be rolled out.
“Models alone do not deliver outcomes and they don’t make the difficult decisions for us – at the end of the day we need a pragmatic, real-world decision,” Mr Blair said.
The Basin Plan set a 2750 gigalitre water recovery target. A maximum of 650GL can be recovered through efficiency projects, including on farm infrastructure.
For example, a pipeline which runs from the Murray River at Wentworth to provide town water for Broken Hill, will enable faster cycling of water as water moves along the Darling River, through Menindee Lakes towards Wentworth.
This reduces the time water sits in the lake and in turn, save on evaporation losses.
Water not recovered through efficiency works comes from irrigator entitlement buybacks.
NSW and Victoria want to maximise the water saving projects to eliminate further buybacks to halt economic and social pain in irrigation communities.
But a hitch lays the MDBA’s calculation of their water saving measures. The agency is charged with assessing the state’s proposals before advising the Commonwealth, which will distribute project funding.
The governments and irrigators have been frustrated by the MDBA’s initial calculations of the proposed efficiency projects which fall short of water savings forecast by the states.
Victoria and NSW must be confident in their calculations, and back the breakaway panel to provide a powerful bargaining chip to play against the final assessment of their efficiency project by the MDBA.
The breakaway move will pit the eastern states against downstream South Australia, which has argued against any move perceived to impact flows across its border.
It also creates a headache for the federal Labor party, who up to now have backed South Australia in calls to maximise downstream water delivery.
The panel is to report by mid-March. The states are expected to sign off on projects by mid-2017 and the Commonwealth will distribute funds by the end of the year.
Dr Don Blackmore AM has 40 years of experience in water and natural resources management including a 15 year role as the Chief Executive of the Murray Darling Basin Commission until his retirement in 2004.
Brett Tucker has a broad range of experience in water resource management and agriculture in a career spanning 25 years. He established Blackwatch Consulting, specialising in the provision of strategy, governance and operations advice to Government agencies.
Chris Arnott has worked across the Murray Darling Basin since 1994 and led the development of the first national snapshot of environmental water in the Australian Environmental Water Management Report 2010. He is also the co-founder of Aither, specialising in establishing, implementing and evaluating effective public policy performance frameworks.
Professor Peter Davies AM is an aquatic environmental scientist with 35 years’ experience in aquatic environmental issues nationwide and internationally. He is also director of Freshwater Systems, an independent aquatic environmental consultancy