THE federal government is set for a showdown with the eastern states after announcing plans to pump billions of litres of extra water into the Murray-Darling Basin ecosystem.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard yesterday pledged extra funding to put an additional 450 gigalitres into the system, lifting the total to be returned under the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s draft plan to 3200GL.
The deadline for the new plan will be extended from 2019 to 2024.
The government next week will rush legislation into parliament to lock up the
$1.77 billion in extra funding, as its self-imposed deadline for finalising the Basin plan nears.
The announcement has appalled some farmers but delighted South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill, who dropped his threat of a High Court challenge against the draft Basin plan.
But the stoush over the River Murray is far from over, with Liberal governments in the Basin states of Queensland, NSW and Victoria dashing hopes of a deal.
Victorian Water Minister Peter Walsh branded the announcement a “stunt” to appease SA, saying the government should be pursuing the 2750GL model agreed in July.
NSW expressed doubts about how the government would fund its promise, while Queensland vowed not to negotiate further if Basin towns were left out in the cold.
The Coalition’s Murray-Darling Basin spokesman, Simon Birmingham from SA, cautiously welcomed the announcement but called for actual details.
Mr Burke, who can make any final decision on his own, said he remained optimistic about striking a deal with the warring parties before the end of the year.
Ms Gillard said the Opposition was divided over the Murray-Darling and needed to be clear about where they stand.
“I think the people of South Australia and the people of Australia are entitled to a better approach than that from the Opposition,” Ms Gillard said.
Up to $200 million of the extra cash will first be used to remove river constraints, such as low-lying bridges and undersized dam outlets, to help free the additional 450GL for the environment.
The majority of the
$1.77 billion will then fund water-recovery projects on farms, instead of buying back water from irrigators, a strategy staunchly opposed by the National Farmers’ Federation and many more critics in the eastern states.
NSW farmers are angry the federal government has “caved into the South Australian government”.
The extra water will be sourced from farms, where government funds will make water use more efficient, and from removing constraints along the river, such as low bridges.
NSW Farmers water spokeswoman Helen Dalton said the result was “a magic number the government hopes will translate into one happy state government at the cost of the vast majority of the Murray-Darling Basin”.
She said it was pleasing the government had finally realised the “enormous bang for buck” it would get from investing heavily in infrastructure and on-farm efficiency.
“But the significance of this is diminished by the suggestion we flush the equivalent of almost an entire Sydney Harbour down river systems that simply cannot hold that amount of water,” she said.
Ms Dalton said the $1.77 billion committed yesterday would not come close to covering the costs of removing constraints such as low-lying bridges, houses, towns and decommissioning purpose-built irrigation areas.
“We all want a healthy Basin,” she said.
SCRUTINISE THE FINE DETAIL: WINDSOR
THE fine detail of the Murray-Darling Basin plan will need close scrutiny in order to determine its impact, according to independent member for New England Tony Windsor.
Yesterday the Prime Minister announced a plan to return 450 billion litres of water to the system between 2019 and 2024, by committing $1.7 billion worth of infrastructure and removing some constraints in the system.
Mr Windsor, who chaired the regional Australia committee inquiry into the Murray-Darling system, says, in theory, the new plan fits the recommendations made by the committee but there is a real need for clarification of some of the detail.
“The number of gigalitres is less important than the net effect of the environmental works and measures, and the on-farm efficiencies, for communities on the Murray-Darling Basin, as they both achieve similar outcomes with less water,” Mr Windsor said. The Parliament recently passed an amendment to the Water Act that enables an automatic adjustment of sustainable diversion limits of 10,000 gigalitres, plus or minus 5 per cent.
Mr Windsor said this would effectively allow an escalation of 500GL, on the basis of increased on-farm and delivery efficiencies, and a downward movement of 500GL to environmental works.
He says key questions that need to be answered include whether environmental works precede on-farm savings; if the government will rule out ad hoc buybacks of water entitlements; and what role is envisaged for a strategic buyback of water entitlements.
Mr Windsor is calling for more transparency through the release of the water-recovery strategy and Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder water-trading plan, which, along with the rules review, was recommended by the committee.
“While it is complicated, there is a win-win here for the people of the Murray-Darling Basin and the environment. The more information available to the community, the better the chance of success,” he said.