THE FEDERAL Government is closing the Water Efficiency Program (WEP) to put an end to the diversion of a portion of farm-irrigation entitlements to environmental purposes within the Murray-Darling Basin.
Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia, Keith Pitt, yesterday announced the WEP will be replaced by a water-saving program that does not impact farmers’ water entitlements.
“My priority is to put communities back at the heart of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and this is another step in that process,” Mr Pitt said.
“The WEP has not worked as it was expected to – not for returning water to a healthy river and certainly not for communities who deserve as much water as possible to remain economically and socially productive, and to underpin local jobs.”
Mr Pitt said the WEP had recovered just 0.2 gigalitres of water since 2019, or 0.04 per cent of the 450GL target of additional water for river-health outcomes that the Federal Government had committed to recovering.
“We are closing the program and replacing it with a new approach that will focus the more than $1.5 billion available in the Water for the Environment Special Account on securing water by improving the efficiency of off-farm irrigation infrastructure.
“Off-farm water recovery means we can actually progress our river health targets and, unlike on-farm programs we do not reduce water availability in the consumptive pool.”
The electorate of Nicholls has the River Murray as its northern border, and Member for Nicholls, Damian Drum, said the new approach was a win for local irrigators.
“This is a commonsense change that will keep water in the consumptive pool and provide farmers with the certainty they need to plan for the future,” Mr Drum said.
Nationals Senator for Victoria, Bridget McKenzie, said Victorian irrigators “have given too much already”.
“By putting an end to buybacks and investing in off-farm water efficiency, we’re making sure the concerns of our communities and farmers are the priority,” Ms McKenzie said.
Minister Pitt said the new program can help meet Basin Plan targets.
“Through the new Off-farm Efficiency Program we will make $1.33 billion available for state-led off-farm projects as well as $150 million in direct grants.”
Mr Pitt said $60M will enable those states who wish to pursue limited on-farm water efficiency to continue to do so, providing the strict social and economic neutrality test set by the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council is met.
“We’ve been doing the legwork so we can get on with the job, identifying about 50 off-farm projects that can form the core of our work program.”
Mr Pitt said 10 of these projects could start within 3-12 months.
The Victorian Farmers Federation water council chair Richard Anderson said VFF welcomed the news.
“The VFF is pleased to see this renewed effort to assist farming communities with the Minister’s announcement for upgrades to off-farm infrastructure, including a $177M investment in the Goulburn Murray Irrigation District.”
“The Productivity Commission only warned last week in its recent report that climate change will have major impacts on irrigators.
“Farmers need to be keeping their water savings to ensure they have a buffer in dryer times ahead and not be forced to give them up to the environment.”
Mr Anderson said the VFF was seeking further detail from the government on the $60M still being allocated to on-farm projects.
“We have also sought clarification on how the$150M direct grants to farmers announced by the Minister will work.”
Source: Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia, VFF