Report says 450 Gl cannot be reached in time

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Time is running out for one of the water recovery programs. Photo by Geoff Adams

A special panel has found that the 450 Gl of ‘up-water’ to be recovered for the Murray-Darling Basin could not be achieved by the June 2024 deadline.

The panel delivered the report to the former Federal Government in December last year but was only released last week by the new government.

“The panel’s overall conclusion is that neither the 450 Gl of water recovery through efficiency measures nor the constraints measures will be delivered by 30 June 2024,” the Water for the Environment Special Account independent panel found.

“However, the program reporting requirements were strengthened, and the authorising environment for the NSW constraints projects became more supportive.

“Consistent with these changes, we observed more momentum in both the efficiency measures and constraints measures programs than in our first review.

“However, momentum does not immediately translate to outcomes. Overall progress was not sufficient for us to conclude that either program will be delivered by 30 June 2024,” the panel found.

Only 2.6 Gl has been recovered or contracted to be recovered through previous efficiency measures programs.

The report said the potential for further recovery through off-farm efficiency programs was 330 Gl at most, due to the program’s off-farm focus.

Australia’s peak farm body says the release of the report should prompt a major rethink of the Federal Government’s policy of recovering an additional 450 Gl under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

National Farmers’ Federation president Fiona Simson said the findings provided Federal Water Minister Tanya Plibersek the opportunity to reset the government’s approach, and to focus on achievable pathways to realise environmental outcomes.

Ms Simson said there were two paths forward — pick an unwinnable fight with the states and try to swing the wrecking ball of buybacks back through basin communities; or divert funding to invest directly in on-ground environmental outcomes.

She pointed to the high cost of removing water from consumptive users.

“The pain recovery would cause, particularly in lower Murray River communities, means this isn’t something any responsible government would consider.

“Instead, Minister Plibersek should ask the MDBA to report on alternate pathways to achieve the environmental outcomes of the 450 Gl.

“This could include practical on-ground measures such as habitat restoration, feral species control, native species breeding programs and pollution management.”

The NFF said the Federal Government should recognise the plan’s achievements and focus on delivery of the 605 Gl through SDLAM (sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism) projects.

“We can’t lose sight of the remarkable environmental outcomes the basin plan has already delivered,” Ms Simson said.

“More than 2100 Gl has been returned to the environment and that’s had real results. We saw that during the last drought.

“When we take into account the current SDLAM projects we’ve now achieved 98 per cent of the plan’s target. That’s a huge and hard-won achievement by communities and governments.

“We need to make sure those SDLAM projects are fit for purpose, deliverable and not creating perverse outcomes.

“We know that more of these projects exist, and we need a process to allow them to come forward and contribute towards the targets under the plan.”

VFF Water Council chair Andrew Leahy said it was no surprise the 450 Gl could not be delivered by 2024.

“It’s time for common sense to prevail and the government to acknowledge the 450 Gl cannot be achieved as it intended in 2012,” Mr Leahy said.

“It’s time to talk honestly about what is and isn’t possible and consider new approaches to environmental outcomes.

“The Federal Government seems to be confused. The 450 Gl was never part of the basin plan; it was a political deal struck with South Australia.

“We need to consider environmental complementary measures projects.”