A defining moment is approaching for the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
Will the way forward antagonise irrigation communities?
Or can the states strike a compromise deal that navigates a way through what will be the last, and most controversial element of water recovery for the environment?
It looks like irrigation communities are set for a win at the end of the week when the Ministerial Council (Minco) of Murray Darling Basin State Ministers meet in Melbourne.
The ministers are in town to nut out a deal under the Basin Plan to recover the last remaining bucket from irrigation for the environment - 450 gigalitres of so-called ‘upwater’ to be drawn from upstream states and delivered to South Australia.
NSW Water Minister Niall Blair said the upcoming Minco would be “one of the most significant in the history of the Basin Plan”.
“If we can get agreement, then I think it will be a momentous day, when we say the horse trading is done and we can just focus on implementation.”
The other key player, Victoria’s Water Minister Lisa Neville is upbeat about all the key players forming a deal.
‘We’re confident NSW and Victoria have a joint proposal that we can with South Australia and the Commonwealth to get approval at Minco,” Ms Neville said.
The 450GL of upwater is a legal requirement under the Basin Plan, but there are several sources it could come from.
Upwater can come from on-farm sources - namely the Commonwealth tendering for voluntary buybacks of irrigation water - or from off-farm sources such as channel upgrades, pipelines, recycled stormwater, or industrial water capture.
Communities across the Basin have campaigned against on-farm recovery, warning politicians reducing irrigation would cripple struggling regional economies.
A Basin Plan clause states on-farm water recovery can only occur if it doesn’t have a negative effect on socio-economic factors.
But the clause doesn’t specify if the socio-economic impact applies to just the individual entitlement holder, or the surrounding community.
But NSW and Victoria are now confident they have SA’s support for criteria in the socio-economic test, to ensure any on-farm buybacks would only be permitted if it can be proved the surrounding community won’t be damaged.
Previously, SA has insisted upwater comes from held entitlements, namely irrigation licences.
The State’s former Water Minister Ian Hunter was a vocal opponent to NSW and Victoria at Minco.
But SA’s new Water Minister David Spiers appears to be responding to vocal opposition to reduction of irrigation entitlements, which is a growing concern among many farm communities.
Busloads of people are preparing to travel from the Riverina to Melbourne to protest further on-farm recovery at Minco on Melbourne.
National Farmers Federation water taskforce chairman Les Gordon is optimistic about a “sensible outcome” from Minco.
“I’m delighted the 450GL negotiations seem to be reaching a constructive end point. My members are looking for water recovery stay off-farm,” Mr Gordon said.
Mr Blair said if Minco approves the new criteria, water recovery would benefit the region.
“We won't stand by and allow any upwater be taken if it will have detrimental impact on communities to community or the sector it’s coming out of,” Mr Blair said.
National Irrigators Council chief executive Steve Whan said the states must get to work developing off farm water recovery projects.
“It needs a proactive and well-funded engagement, on the ground, so that communities are designing projects that meet their needs and the environmental objectives.”
Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville will raise a key community concern at Minco.
Ms Neville expects Minco to agree to further study the physical requirements of delivering 450 gigalitres of water from upstream states to South Australia.
A peak flow rate of 80,000 megalitres a day is expected to be required to deliver the full whack of Basin Plan water to SA. There’s an open question if the upwater can be delivered without damaging floods or washed-away bridges.
“There’ll be agreement to do more work, and to ask how the Murray Darling Basin Authority can guarantee it can be achieved,” Ms Neville said.
“People have been talking about getting rid of the Barmah Choke, to reduce the natural constraint, but that could be very damaging to the environment in Victoria. We have go to understand what is possible to do, and as the question: can we even physically deliver the 450GL?”