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Government ditches Murray Darling water buyback strategy

Grain Central, September 4, 2020

THE Federal Government has announced it will not buy any further water entitlements from farmers to meet water-saving targets under the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

Water Minister Keith Pitt said the government would, instead, look for other options for water recovery.

There haven’t been water buybacks from farmers for about two years. The 1230 gigalitres of water recovered so far has almost reached the buyback cap of 1500 gigalitres.

Mr Pitt said despite the move, the government remained committed to the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) welcomed the announcement of further reforms for the Murray Darling Basin.

NFF president, Fiona Simson, said Minister Pitt made several key announcements following his consideration of the Water for Environments Special Account and the Sefton Socio-Economic Report. These include:

  • A new ‘Trust and Transparency’ body;
  • No more on farm water buy backs;
  • Putting communities back in the centre of the Basin Plan.

Ms Simson said the Trust and Transparency body would see the compliance roles of the Murray Darling Basin Authority moved out of the authority and vested within the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment.

“This is an important recognition of the need to empower the MDBA to get on with the job of implementing reform, while freeing it of the burden of compliance,” she said.

“It will be important to ensure that there is appropriate separation from the policy branch of the Department and that there are existing models which can be adopted to effectively achieve this.

“There is nevertheless still a task of ensuring that the Basin Ministerial Council demands advice from the Basin Officials Committee that will drive effective reform consistent with a range of reviews, especially including the Productivity Commission’s five-year implementation review. The NFF has called for this for some time.”

Ms Simson said no more farm water buybacks was an important threshold which the farm sector had long been advocating for.

This applies in two contexts:

  • the non-acquisition of the 450GL from the irrigation consumptive pool, consistent with the current NFF policy
  • the Minister’s commitment to greater flexibility and the need for greater community engagement for sustainable diversion limits.

Ms Simson said once this was achieved the states could get on with the development and implementation of the SDL measures to achieve a further 605 gigalitres for the environment.

“Agriculture cannot tolerate the prospect of further buybacks, more than enough damage has been done to communities, this needs to be fixed now or other options considered,” she said.

Ms Simson said affected Basin communities would no doubt welcome additional funding, about $170 million, to support those adversely effected by the implementation of the Plan.

“We note more may be required. The NFF has long argued for recognition of the impacts of the Plan on Basin communities and this is an important acknowledgement of that,” she said.

Ms Simson said the release today of the Sefton and WESA reviews would provide greater insight into reform priorities, for example both the Productivity Commission and Sefton identify the need for time flexibility on delivery of the plan.

More adaptive plan

NSW Farmers welcomed the reforms to the Murray Darling Basin Plan, including the halting of water buy backs from farmers.

“NSW Farmers has long been advocating for the removal of buybacks as a form of water recovery and for a more adaptive Basin Plan that achieves positive or neutral social, economic and environmental outcomes,” NSW Farmers president James Jackson said.

“Various reports including the Independent Assessment of Social and Economic Conditions in the Basin have shown that direct buybacks have resulted in uneven outcomes across the basin and undermined economic sustainability. The no buybacks commitment must be incorporated into legislation.

“Now that the focus is on water recovery through infrastructure projects and Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism (SDLAM) Projects, governments must ensure that these are implemented with full consultation of water users, include improvements to projects and achieve triple bottom line outcomes.

“The proposed SDLAM are big initiatives, and NSW Farmers calls on Minister Pitt to give Basin States, including NSW, the time they need to engage communities and get these projects right – if this means revisiting the 2024 deadline, then this is what needs to happen.”

Minister Pitt also announced that the enforcement role of the Murray Darling Basin Authority would be moved to a new Inspector-General of Water Compliance. This was a recommendation from the Productivity Commission review of the implementation of the Basin Plan.

Step in right direction

The Ricegrowers’ Association of Australia (RGA) has called the commitment to stop water buybacks from farmers “a step in the right direction and in line with findings from the many reports and reviews that have been conducted”.

“We also encourage Minister Pitt and Basin States to further consider and implement recommendations from the reviews already completed and those currently underway,” RGA president, Rob Massina, said.

“The RGA’s policy position to stop buybacks is based on the fact that all water recovery from productive use results in negative social and economic impacts for basin communities and, in particular, irrigation communities.

“This truth is reinforced in the study of the Socio-Economic Impacts of the Basin Plan, which finds a growing sense of hopelessness within communities across the Murray-Darling Basin.

“Whilst this commitment from the Commonwealth and Coalition governments has not been legislated, we encourage all basin states to work towards securing this change into the future.”

Mr Massina said the RGA also welcomed the announcement to restructure the MDBA by splitting its functions.

“The review of the National Water Initiative and the ACCC Review of Water Markets will show that there is more to be done,” he said.

Independent panel report

The Final Report by the Independent Panel assessing the social and economic conditions in the Murray Darling Basin has been released.

The Final Report and all 22 recommendations is available on the Panel website at: https://www.basin-socio-economic.com.au/

A summary of the Final Report can be found here.

A summary of work commissioned by the Panel is here and the full technical reports as well as submissions received on the Draft Report are here.

Sources: NFF, NSW Farmers, RGA

 

 

 

 

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