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Murray Darling Basin

The NFF supports a Murray Darling Basin Plan that truly balances the social, economic and environmental values that our nation enjoys from our largest river system. Governments must ensure that the Basin Plan is implemented in a way that minimises the social and economic impacts of recovering and using water for the benefit of the environment.

Issue

The Murray­Darling Basin is home to most of Australia’s irrigated agriculture. The environmental health of the Basin underpins the success of agricultural operations in the region and is a priority of the farmers who live and work there. Success in the MDB is a careful balancing act between the environment and agriculture and one farmers take very seriously. 

The national debate about how best to improve the health of the environment in the Murray­Darling, has spanned more than three decades and, in 2012, led to the development of the Murray­Darling Basin Plan (The Basin Plan). The Basin Plan had one clear goal: a healthy and working Murray­Darling Basin that supports communities, agriculture and the environment

But this balance has fallen out of kilter. 

The way the Basin Plan has been implemented has resulted in unacceptable social and economic impacts in those Basin communities that are highly dependent on irrigation. With more water still to be recovered for full implementation, many are at breaking point – and the uncertainty of where the additional water will come from is affecting community wellbeing. 

Too much emphasis has been on the simple premise of “just giving more water to the environment”.

Farmers that live along the rivers are worried that by merely focusing on “more water” their properties will be unreasonably flooded by environmental flows. More emphasis must be placed on achieving environmental outcomes through more strategic and effective use of environmental water. More focus must be given to addressing environmental problems like carp, fish ladders and the cold water released from dams that stop our native fish from thriving. 

Governments have a choice in how they implement the Basin Plan. All that the farm sector and the communities that rely on us are asking is for them to take the pathway that will have the least impact on our social and economic wellbeing whilst balancing environmental outcomes

Background

The trajectory of our irrigation industries has fundamentally changed as a result of the Basin Plan. Water recovery activities to implement the Basin Plan will result in around 30 per cent of water that was once used for irrigation now being dedicated to the environment. In some river valleys, too much water has been recovered and the buyback of irrigation entitlements have had significant localised social and economic impacts. Water efficiency projects share water savings between the farm and the environment. While the choice to participate in on­farm projects is one for the individual, there are still impacts to our communities and industries, as there is significantly less water available for production over the long term. There is a difference between the financial attractiveness of a project and the social and economic impacts of on­farm efficiency projects. 

A key issue is the ability of the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH) to effectively manage its water portfolio and to deliver water to the environment without resulting in flooding of private land and infrastructure. Communities that live along the river are concerned that Governments are not listening to them on the magnitude of these possible impacts. The budget available and timeframes set to overcome these issues is inadequate. 

The Murray­Darling Basin Plan has a legislated goal to remove 2750 gigalitres (GL) and an additional 450 GL of water from production. The recovered water will be owned by the Commonwealth, and managed by the CEWH for the benefit of the environment. The Plan includes a provision to reduce the 2750 GL by up to 650 GL if the States are able to demonstrate actions that will deliver the same environmental benefit, but with less water. The additional 450 GL can only be sourced from projects that result in water efficiency savings. At the end of 2015, almost 1954 GL of water had been recovered by the Australian Government by direct purchasing of water entitlements (buyback), and investment in on­ and off­farm water efficiency projects. Governments have invested $200 million to deliver a strategy to overcome these “constraints” to effective environmental water management.

What the industry needs

  • Governments to put on hold recovery of the 450 GL “up water”. Until constraints are overcome and a method to ensure that this up water projects will have neutral or beneficial social and economic impacts is developed, it is premature to take a “non­regrets” approach to the 450 GL.
  • Genuine engagement with the riparian landholders who are potentially affected by changes in environmental water management to ensure that we are realistic about what can and can’t be achieved in the constraints management strategy
  • A review in those valleys where water recovery has exceeded the diversion limits set by the Basin Plan. 
  • Governments to explore to the full extent possible options to achieve environmental outcomes more efficiently, including projects to achieve the full 650 GL of “downwater” offets and ways to achieve better environmental outcomes with less water in the Northern Basin. 

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