Australia’s Water Ministers have reached agreement on a new test, guaranteeing positive, or neutral, socio-economic outcomes for any further recovery of Murray Darling Basin environmental water.
The deal means efficiency projects will contribute to the Plan’s 450 gigalitres environmental ‘upwater’, which will include lining irrigation channels, reducing water leaks in Basin cities and installing meters.
Federal Water Minister David Littleproud hailed the latest Murray–Darling Basin Ministerial Council, Melbourne, as an historic moment, in the nation’s history.
“For the first time since Federation, all Basin states and the Commonwealth have agreed on the management of Murray Basin system,” Mr Littleproud said.
“Today's agreement on a neutrality test guarantees all water recovered towards the 450GL will create positive or neutral socio-economic outcomes,” Mr Littleproud said.
He said State and Territory ministers had taken the politics out of the Basin Plan.
The Federal, Victorian, NSW and South Australian ministers met in person and were joined, by phone, by ACT and Queensland.representatives.
“No-one is shirking their responsibility; we will apply the test the Parliament of Australia asked us to apply,” Mr Littleproud said.
‘We have been able to agree on the parameters of that.
“It's a common sense test, articulated and devised by commonsense people, and that's why I am proud to say these ministers were able to leave the politics aside and get on with the job.”
Mr Littleproud said it was the last major piece in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan puzzle.
“This will protect both jobs and production and will be applied at a local, regional and state level,” he said.
Politics had clouded the Basin Plan for many years.
“We have risen above that.
“We, as politicians from all persuasions, have reached an agreement on the 450GL and the socio-economic test - one that respects the parameters of the original legislation, put in place in 2012,” Mr Littleproud said.
“That's all we have done; we haven’t done anything else, we’ve done exactly what the Parliament of Australia asked us to do.”
But during the meeting, about 300 protests from NSW Murray River and Victorian Goulburn Murray Irrigation District communities stood outside the Park Hyatt, where the meeting was being held, holding placards and chanting.
They had marched up Collins Street, from Southern Cross Station, for the meeting.
Chanting “no water, no food,” they dispersed, shortly before the meeting broke up.
One of the protest organisers, Deniliquin’s Shelley Scoullar, said farmers and community members made the trip because their towns were being devastated by a plan, that hugely underestimated the job losses, social impacts, mental health and lost prosperity in rural towns.
“We want to be heard. We want the ministers to listen to our concerns and understand that we are hurting,” Ms Scoullar, from the Speak Up Campaign, said.
“We also want to talk to them about ways we can help build a plan that protects the environment, as well as our communities.”
Speak Up for Water spokesperson Tom Chesson said the rhetoric was positive, but the “devil is in the detail.”
“Until we see the fine detail, it’s hard to see what was signed up to,” Mr Chesson said.
He said he would be very interested to see how Victorian Water Minister, Lisa Neville, in particular handled the “deliverability” of the extra water.
“That’s an absolute critical point – but the devil is in the detail, and we aren’t going to know the detail for a little while,” Mr Chesson said.
It was disappointing an agenda had not been released before the meeting.
“I think they could be far more open and transparent and we’d like to see that, before the next meeting.
“It appears regional communities dodged a bullet, but it will now be absolutely critical for the states to follow through and ensure these projects are socially and economically neutral, and there are no dodgy deals done in the future.”
Common sense prevailed at the meeting, according to Victorian Farmers Federation Water Council chair Richard Anderson.
“We’ve been fighting for six years for ‘fair dinkum’ tests that protect farmers and jobs. Today is a breakthrough in ensuring regional communities, jobs and farmers are protected against the third party impacts of water recovery,” Mr Anderson said. .
“We support projects that have a positive effect on regional communities and improve the environment, but finding projects that meet these criteria will be a big challenge.
Water recovery projects would now only be funded if they were made public, demonstrated they contributed to the viability of irrigation districts, did not impact regional jobs, did not have negative third party impacts on irrigation systems, water markets or regional communities, did not increase the price of water, did not result in rorting or profiteering and social and environmental impacts were improved.
MinCo also discussed concerns raised by the VFF about the increasing risks that the MDBA will not be able to deliver water to irrigators when it is urgently needed during heatwaves.
“We have seen significant changes in water deliveries as more crops have been developed downstream of the Barmah Choke and additional water is now going to South Australia – we need to ensure we can meet the demands of existing irrigators,” Mr Anderson said.
The Ministerial Councils decision to direct the Murray Darling Basin Authority to urgently investigate and report on the risks of delivery shortfalls this summer, and longer term risk was “a terrific step in informing and protecting rural communities,” he said..
“Good progress has been made by the Ministerial Council, but there is still much work to be done to implement the Basin Plan. Funding must now flow to agreed implementation programs and the serious issues raised by the productivity Commission and the South Australian Royal Commission will need to be addressed by governments in the new year.”
Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville said communities had sent ministers a strong message, through the consultation process, that the issue needed to resolved.
“I think we have struck the right balance,” Ms Neville said.
“One of the really critical things people were concerned about was the additional water that needs to be provided, under the plan.
“Can we deliver it, in a socially and economically neutral way, or better?
“Today, we have all agreed on what that criteria are
“We will each be applying the same criteria, to every single project, to ensure only those projects that are neutral, or have better socio-economic outcomes, will be approved, through this process.”
Ms Neville said that gave certainty to communities.
“They know we’ve got their backs.”
“This is an historic day, and it really is the start of the implementation of the plan.”
Ms Neville said the states had signed an agreement, with the Commonwealth, for the first funding for major infrastructure works, aimed at saving water and getting better environmental outcomes.
“We have also agreed to ensure that every single project is subject to a robust and rigorous socio-economic assessment, one the community has seen and supported.”
The ministers agreed to further “significant” Commonwealth funding for the Coorong, while South Australian Water Minister David Speirs said his government would look at using the Adelaide desalination plant to return water to the environment.
South Australia agreed to a provision pushed for by NSW and Victoria which bars voluntary buybacks of irrigation water licences to boost environmental flows unless a “robust” assessment of socio-economic factors demonstrates it would have a neutral or positive impact on socio-economic factors.
Mr Speirs said the government made it very clear it was “back at the table, not screaming from the sidelines”, and negotiating on the Plan.
“That’s what I have done, as South Australia’s Environment and Water Minister, reach out to my fellow ministers, of different political persuasions, and negotiate with them, in a respectful way,” Mr Speirs said.
“The agreement we have reached today is truly historic.”
He said the socio-economic test was “fair and balanced” and would lead to many projects, which would deliver the further 450GL for the Murray River.
“At the same time, we have said we will begin an investigation into how Adelaide’s desalination plant.’
He said the plant had been a “white elephant” in Adelaide’s southern suburbs, for too long but the government wanted to see if it could be activated, in a way that could contribute to returning water to the Murray River.
“It’s early days, but we want to do that in good faith, and I am pleased that we have been able to receive funding towards a study as to how that desalination plant could connect with the Murray as an offset,” he said.
The government anticipated doing the study relatively quickly.
“That’s the commitment I made,” Mr Speirs said.
“That study will be completed in the coming months; we know the plant can be cranked up to any level, within its capacity, within a matter of days.’
If that study shows that it’s a viable option to turn on, and there’s an appropriate funding package that goes alongside that, we can get that to happen very quickly.”
But he said the plant would not be turned on, if it had a negative impact on household and business water bills, “unless we have a form of financial assistance, to support that action.’
“We want to get a good handle on how much water we can produce form the plant; it still has to act as a drought relief and water supply strategy, within the Adelaide precinct.
NSW Water minister Niall Blair hailed the outcome as “very good news” for all Basin states.
“It was the day that the dealing was finalised and now we can move to implementation,” Mr Blair said.
“We always said, in NSW, we signed up to a plan, but not a plan at all costs.”
He said uncertainty was causing hardship, in many NSW communities.
“We knew we had to get this done because uncertainty is the biggest thing that’s been hanging over the head of communities, in my state, for some time,” Mr Blair said.
“Uncertainty is a killer, it stops investment and stops people getting on, and doing what they do best.
“Now we have certainty, we have cut a deal, politics was left at the door, and now we have a plan we can all move forward on.”