Dec 16, 2019

News | AU Politics: Murray-Darling Basin plan: threat of walkout averted with promise of review

Anne Davies

New South Wales had said it would quit plan if state was not offered concessions on environmental water targets

A farmer walks along the dried-up bed of the Namoi River near Walgett.  A farmer walks along the dried-up bed of the Namoi River near Walgett. Farmers in parts of NSW have been pushing the government to walk away from the Murray-Darling Basin agreement. Photograph: David Gray/Getty Images
The federal water minister, David Littleproud, appears to have averted a walkout from from the Murray-Darling Basin plan ahead of a crucial meeting in Brisbane to discuss possible concessions to cope with the drought.
New South Wales had threatened to walk away from the $13bn joint federal-state agreement if it did not receive relief from some targets it must reach under the plan. These include returning its share of 2,750GL of water to the environment to improve the river system’s health.
But after a meeting last night, Littleproud said there “is a lot of common ground” and signalled that the states would come on board with a review of the plan to be completed by March.
“The first part is I’m looking for states’ cooperation in terms of the review that will be completed by March,” he said. “We will work through the finer points. The commonwealth made that commitment. That review will happen.
“I don’t want to pre-empt what will come out of the meeting this morning, but we have a lot of common ground to work from. In fact I think you will see positive outcomes out of this meeting because there is a degree of cooperation.
“Yes there are tensions with respect to the drought. It is biting in a lot of these communities. But we have completed 80% of this plan.
“The last 20% can be done with going nowhere near a farm, by building infrastructure to recover the last 20% of water. That is what we’re trying to do, work through in a calm way with the states to make sure there is less impact, as we can on these communities that have hurt, not only from the drought, but the basin plan,” he said.
The plan has already recovered more than 2,000GL of water for the environment but the last stage is proving more difficult, particularly during the drought. Instead of buying back water rights from farmers, the plan proposes achieving similar environmental outcomes through efficiency projects, which will reduce evaporation or use water in the rivers more efficiently.
NSW had proposed a major project involving shrinking the Menindee Lakes to save water by reducing evaporation but a community outcry and mass fish deaths have caused the government to rethink that.
Ahead of the meeting, Littleproud was signalling a willingness to offer more help to the drought-stricken states.
“The last 20% can be done by us building infrastructure which would be stimulus in a lot of these communities right now to recover the last 20%,” he said. “If we can achieve that and then get the hell out of people’s lives and stay out of them, I think regional Australia will be a lot better for it.”
The second proposal was to give the new inspector general of the basin plan, Mick Keelty, the power to compel evidence from state water agencies.
“The Australian taxpayer has made a $13bn investment,” Littleproud said. “We need to make sure there’s accountability, not only of federal agencies, but also state agenciesd.
“What we’re asking Mr Keelty and his team to do is to be that conduit, to build the trust between states and agencies to make sure that those 2 million people living up and down the basin have someone to go to if they feel something isn’t right,” he said.
The meeting is due to finish about midday, with more details on the review.

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