The NSW Irrigators' Council have called for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan to be amended to allow more flexibility to achieve environmental targets, while the Victorian government has also backed greater flexibility.
Victorian acting water minister Richard Wynne MP told FlowNews24 in a statement:
"Victoria’s position is that there should be more flexibility around the 2024 deadline for delivery of environmental projects under the Basin Plan.
"Victoria is on track to deliver most of its projects which will be good for the environment – and also meet our obligations under the Basin Plan without more water recovery from farmers. Community consultation and support is very important in this process and we don’t want to take good projects off the table.
"We will continue to represent Victoria’s position to the Commonwealth which is in line with the Productivity Commission’s findings that there should be more flexibility in delivering these projects."
In an interview with FlowNews24, NSW Irrigators' Council CEO Claire Miller said:
"The Basin Plan is too rigid to be a genuinely adaptive management plan that can respond to new science and to new knowledge, and also to be able to work with communities to build up confidence.
"There's not a lot of goodwill towards this reform in those northern Victorian and southern New South Wales communities - for very very good reasons - because they are the losers in this and they are paying a very big price."
Ms Miller was responding to a call that Goulburn Murray Water Irrigation District Water Forum co-chair David McKenzie made on FlowNews24 earlier in the week, that a 'Plan B' was needed as the 2024 deadline in the Basin Plan could make buybacks a necessity.
Whilst federal water minister Keith Pitt assured FlowNews24 that buybacks were not government policy, the South Australian water minister said that whilst hopeful efficiency measures would enable the water recovery targets to be met without buybacks, buybacks may yet be necessary by 2024.
The NSW Irrigators Council highlighted one practical obstacle to meeting the 2024 targets, landholder easements. These still need to be negotiated to enable environmental water to enter the Victorian Murray and find its way downstream for environmental purposes. Ms Miller said the slow progress so far, if replicated, meant the agreements needed would not be reached in the next 3 years:
"Right now, I would be pessimistic about any change and that's always where sensible ideas end, is whenever you look at that you've got to amend the Plan, because its got to go through the senate. Take one look at the senate makeup and you realise that this is somewhat of a challenge!
"The conversation has started at the ministerial council (level) and (we're) talking to a number of stakeholders, getting some common ground on this, and starting the conversation with all our elected representatives in Canberra now to talk about what needs to be done here to get the best results for the environment - but just as, if not more importantly, to relieve the hardship that a lot of these communities are facing."
NSW shadow water minister, Clayton Barr, told FlowNews24 the environment was the paramount consideration, and that buybacks would not only be needed, but farmers were telling him they wanted them to happen:
"The entire foundation of the Murray Darling Basin Plan is the environment, and flowing rivers to support the environment. This Government have shown time and time again, Minister after Minister, that they simply don’t have the capacity to deliver on that priority environmental outcome.
"Buybacks should be an option in any market based approach.
"I have personally spoken to farmers who would like to be able to negotiate a buyback, but they are prevented from doing this because of political ideology that tells landholders that they can’t. These farmers describe themselves as having their business model killed off, with death by one-thousand cuts to their water supply as each water policy, regulation and decision is made."
Federal Labor, however, would not be drawn on Monday morning on a policy position on buybacks or extending the life of the current Basin Plan, saying the onus was on the government to deliver on its commitments. Shadow Minister Terri Butler told FlowNews24:
"I think people are rightly asking the question, where is the water going to come from."
The full interview with Labor water shadow minister Terri Butler is in the FlowNews24 podcast player at the end of this article.