More community and peak industry groups have added their call for the Federal Government to release the Murray Darling Basin Plan's draft socio-economic test.
Murray-Darling Basin governments have sought community and industry views on potential additional assessment criteria for on-farm water efficiency projects, to ensure they produce neutral, or positive, social and economic outcomes.
The Federal Government appointed Tamworth based consultants, Sefton & Associates, to carry out community consultations on the projects, which are the basis for the recovery of another 450GL of water under the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
The Australian Dairy Industry Council Water Taskforce chair Daryl Hoey said the government should immediately release the report, due to be presented to the Water Ministers’ Council, meeting in Melbourne on Friday.
“All information and relevant reports need to be made available to ensure that industry, Government and communities have an informed debate; this is only fair,” Mr Hoey said.
ADIC warned any plan to take an extra 450 gigalitres of water from the Murray Darling Basin for the environment must be viewed as a last resort.
It could only be achieved once the primary 2750GL target set by the Murray Darling Basin Plan had been secured and only if there are no negative socio-economic impacts.
In a submission to the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, ADIC argued for a stronger socio-economic test to assess the neutral or positive impacts of all constraints projects, including a cost-benefit analysis and consideration of any future effects on communities.
The ADIC submission stated that there was “compelling evidence the loss of up to 450GL of water in the absence of a robust social and economic test would have severe impacts on milk production, processing and the viability of communities in the Basin.”
The Murray-Darling Basin is home to approximately 1,405 dairy farms, representing more than 1.8 billion litres, around 20 per cent of Australia’s total milk pool.
Mr Hoey said while the organisation supported the goal of achieving better environmental outcomes, there was little evidence that extracting 450GL of water out of the consumptive pool, before first securing the Basin Plan’s 2750GL target, would benefit the environment.
“Dairy farmers value our rivers and support the improvements that have been made to the Basin, but there may be more pain to industry with little gain for the environment if we try to take out an extra 450GL of water before we even reach the legislated target,” Mr Hoey said.
“The Australian dairy industry is our third biggest agricultural industry, worth $4.3 billion at the farm gate, and we must cautiously assess any potential effects on farmers and broader Basin communities.”
The ADIC is also requesting that the proposed timeframe for constraints projects be pushed out from the current 2024 deadline, in line with a recommendation handed down by the Productivity Commission in its five-year review of the Basin Plan.
“We acknowledge there is a great degree of difficulty associated with assessing the impacts of projects on the viability of the connected irrigation system in the southern Basin,” Mr Hoey said.
"It is necessary to review the original timeframe to accommodate the delivery of constraints projects."
Water leaders in the Goulburn Murray Irrigation District are calling on the Federal Government to release a report into the Murray Darling Basin Plan's draft socio-economic test.
The report, compiled by independent consultants Sefton & Associates, details community and industry views on potential additional assessment criteria for on-farm water efficiency projects to ensure they produce neutral or positive social and economic outcomes.
GMID Water Leadership co-chair and Independent Member for Shepparton District Suzanna Sheed said the report must be made public before Friday's meeting of Basin Water Ministers in Melbourne.
"After agreeing in June to finalise an agreed socio-economic test for the recovery of the additional 450 GL of 'upwater' by Christmas, the Federal Government sat on their hands for months, only managing to pull together some hasty community consultation in November after both the Victorian and NSW Governments - and the GMID Water Leadership - had taken the initiative to develop their own criteria," Ms Sheed said.
"Now they're refusing to release the report publicly prior to the Ministerial Council meeting on Friday - this simply isn't good enough.
"The Sefton report, together with the Productivity Commission's draft five-year review released in August, will help determine the future of the Murray Darling Basin Plan and if we are to have an informed and constructive debate then we need to have confidence in the transparency of the process."
"There has been widespread disappointment with the level of consultation and communities are very anxious to see that report to be sure their concerns have been properly represented."
GMID Water Leadership co-chair David McKenzie said in addition to setting a socio-economic test that ensures no further hardship on basin communities, Basin Ministers must ensure the recommendations of the Productivity Commission's draft report were appropriately addressed.
"There are fundamental matters to be addressed in the Productivity Commission's report and it must not be left on a shelf to gather dust," Mr McKenzie said.
"We need to make sure any further water recovery projects funded by public monies are subject to a proper cost-benefit analysis and to recognise that the Basin Plan cannot be completed 'on time and on budget'.
"It's time for a sensible conversation about the pace of implementation in the final stages of the plan, and for that we need to know that Basin Ministers are being provided with accurate information that reflects communities' views and expectations."
And Deniliquin based lobby-group Speak Up, which is planning a Melbourne rally to coincide with the MinCo meeting, said it was also concerned about the contents of the report.
Speak Up Campaign spokesperson Vicki Meyer said the Murray-Darling Basin Authority did not have a good record with so-called ‘independent’ reports.
“Throughout the Basin Plan process we have had a never-ending string of reports and assumptions that do not accurately reflect what is happening,” Ms Meyer said.
“We’ve had false modelling and ‘cherry picking’ of comments to suit an agenda. Why would we expect this report to be any different?”
Ms Meyer said the MDBA flatly refused to appropriately acknowledge the failings of the Basin Plan or its unintended consequences.
“Speak Up is concerned that Ministers will be given the wrong impression from community meetings. It’s happened in the past, so why wouldn’t we expect it to happen again?”
She said the only resolution was for Federal Water Minister David Littleproud to make the Sefton report public, before Friday’s meeting.
“This document is supposed to advise ministers on the views of our communities. Therefore, it would seem logical to let us see the report before it is used in the decision-making process.
“If we can confirm it’s an accurate account of community views, ministers will be able to use its contents with confidence, and with the advantage of valuable local knowledge.”
Ms Meyer said so far in the Basin Plan process it has been the MDBA’s refusal to effectively collaborate with rural communities that led to the plan being an abject failure.
“Look at the job losses. Look at the mental health issues in rural areas, the explosion of carp breeding, the damage to river banks and the unnecessary flooding of forests because they can’t get water delivery right.
“Look at all these and then tell us the plan is working effectively. Of course it’s not, but highly paid bureaucrats are not going to make those admissions and concede they have failed.”
Ms Meyer said Speak Up had confidence that Victorian and NSW Water Ministers Lisa Neville and Niall Blair would try to protect their communities at Friday’s meeting
“We believe the MDBA, not surprisingly, will try to convince ministers that it can be recovered with no negative impacts. Everyone living in these communities knows that is impossible … absolutely impossible. The MDBA has a predetermined agenda which does not include protecting rural people.
“Hopefully that is not again evident in the Sefton report, but we suspect it will be. That’s why it imperative the public has an opportunity to read the report this week,” Ms Meyer said.
Mr Littleproud said the consultation report was part of the work commissioned by MinCo and its release was a matter for the council.
The MDBA has also been contacted for comment.