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The Murray needs water, not politics


Opposition to the Murray Basin Plan is mounting, and the stakes are very high. Rogue Senators and angry irrigators from the South Basin have managed to mount a Senate Select Committee Inquiry into the Basin Plan

The Inquiry will look into the social and economic impacts of the Plan’s implementation. Essentially, though, it is about attacking the river-saving buyback of water for the environment. Some farmers and Irrigators believe that water buybacks are destroying communities and, somewhat surprisingly, hurting the environment. 

Public Meeting was held in Barham NSW on July 8th and was just the beginning of what could be another protracted political argument over how our largest river system is managed. But while the politics roll on, Basin ecosystems continue to face threats, including a looming drought and a Federal Government proposal to cap water buybacks

The Basin Plan already represents a huge political compromise. The 3200GL of environmental water promised in the Plan is barely enough to keep the iconic ecosystems of the Basin alive, especially given the uncertainties of climate change.

Can we risk more meddling in this historic agreement? Please consider making a submission to the Senate Inquiry on the Governments proposal to cap water buybacks for the environment.

Submissions close 31st July 2015.

Water Amendment Bill 2015 – Brief guide to writing a submission.

The Australian Government has introduced the Water Amendment Bill 2015 to cap water by-backs for the environment in the Murray-Darling Basin at 1500 gigalitres (GL). The Bill was referred to an Inquiry, submissions to the Inquiry close on the 31st July 2015.

Buying water from willing sellers, under the Restoring the Balance program, has been the primary way the Federal Governments meets its targets of returning water to the river systems of the Murray Darling Basin. Under the Basin Plan, the commonwealth must recover 2750GL water from consumptive use, to meet a Sustainable Diversion Limit (SDL) of 10,873 gigalitres (GL) per year . This water is used to support critical ecological services and environmental assets such as Ramsar listed wetlands as well as threatened species. The Water Amendment Bill would limit the Government’s ability to buy water back directly from farmers and irrigators, instead requiring governments to source water from infrastructure upgrades and efficiencies.

Friends of the Earth does not support the Bill in its current form. Fundamentally, this is because the Bill will make it harder for current and future governments to implement the Basin Plan and meet water recovery targets. This could exacerbate impacts on the highly vulnerable ecosystems of this iconic Australian landscape. The following points highlight our key concerns about the Bill.

1) The Bill makes recovery more expensive, placing an undue burden on taxpayers and making water-recovery targets harder to achieve.

According to ANU Professor R. Quentin Grafton, water recovery through infrastructure and efficiency upgrades costs on average three times more than recovering water through buy-backs. By limiting the amount of water governments can recover through buy-backs, this Bill will increase the cost to taxpayers. It will also make implementation of the Plan more expensive and thus more difficult in a time of budgetary constraint. Even the Government’s own Commission of Audit has cautioned against over-reliance on infrastructure as the principal means of water recovery.1

Professor Grafton has provided the following outline, which succinctly explains the impact of this cost-increase to taxpayers and the environment:

“Peer-reviewed studies in leading academic journals show that the greatest threat to river ecosystem health in the Murray-Darling are high levels of water extraction. This was supposed to be fixed by the 2012 Basin Plan and to ensure, as per the Water Act, that the mouth of the River Murray is kept open without the need for dredging in at least 95% of years. Yet dredging has already begun at the Murray Mouth while the southern part of the Basin is not in drought. Meanwhile the Australian government plans to cap purchases of water entitlements for the environment at 1,500 GL/year.  This makes no sense for the environment or the economy. To reach the sustainable diversion limits under the Basin Plan the only alternative to buying water entitlements will be to acquire water through infrastructure subsidies. But subsidies to acquire water for the environment cost, on average, at least three times more per volume of water obtained. “

“Purchasing water entitlements from willing sellers gives farmers with flexibility as to how to use less water by employing deficit irrigation, changing their land use and/or tillage practices or by investing, as they see fit in improvements in irrigation efficiency. By contrast, subsidies and ‘gold plating’ irrigation gives no such flexibility and can have a ‘rebound’ effect by reducing return flows that lower environmental flows while also disadvantaging irrigators and irrigation districts that, at their own expense, have already installed efficient irrigation systems.”

2) The Water Amendment Bill could mean the cap overrides obligations to meet SDLs.

Inclusion of the Buy-Back Cap provision in the Commonwealth Water Act itself means that it could override the SDLs which are included the Basin Plan (an instrument subordinate to the Act). If the Commonwealth finds that it is unable to meet the SDLs via infrastructure upgrades or efficiency measures because, for example, they get prohibitively expensive, it will not be able to use buy backs to recover the water required. By, in effect, overriding the Basin Plan, the Bill further limits Government’s ability to recover water for the environment.

3) There is no certainty that the Government will be able to meet the SDL recovery targets through ‘efficiency measures’ and on-farm infrastructure.

It is unclear whether there is adequate demand from the irrigation sector or appropriate opportunities for upgrades and efficiency improvements to meet water recover targets to bridge the cap to meet the SDLs.

4) The Bill introduces a novel definition of which water has been ‘brought’ by the Government. It is, again, unclear how much water will be counted towards the amount already ‘brought’ by the Government. This may mean that we will reach the 1500gl cap much sooner than anticipated, eliminating opportunities for further cost-effective purchase of water entitlements.

5) The Bill does not have the support of Basin Traditional Owners. Peak Traditional Owner organisations have spoken out against the Bill and its potential impact on the environment and cultural heritage. For Traditional Owner comments visit the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations site here. Friends of the Earth works in solidarity with Traditional Owners affected by inequitable natural resource allocations.

We encourage anyone to make a submission by 5pm the 31st July.

You can submit via the online porthole on the Parliamentary Website

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