• Rikki Lambert

Upstream farmers want Basin Plan delay as ministers meet, conservationists say 'stick to plan'

New South Wales and Victorian farmers are urging the federal and state water ministers meeting today to extend time or find new ways to reach targets, as downstream conservationists want the Murray-Darling Basin states to stick to their commitments to recover water for the environment.

The NSW Farmers have joined the Victorian Farmers Federation's call for the 2024 Murray Darling Basin Plan deadline to be extended as Basin water ministers meet today. However, the Conservation Council of SA is urging ministers to stay the course and stick to the plan.

Conservation SA is calling for the Federal Water Minister Keith Pitt to hold strong on his commitment to deliver the Basin Plan in full and on time. Conservation SA’s Chief Executive, Craig Wilkins said in a statement:

“(Federal) Minister Pitt must be supported by other Water Ministers, including our own Minister for Environment and Water, David Speirs to deliver the water promised to South Australia in the scheduled time.
“We’ve seen a push each Water Minister’s meeting from both NSW and Victoria to extend the 2024 deadline for full delivery of the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
“South Australia has the most to lose if this water is not delivered on time,” he said.

The call comes as floodwaters from Qld and NSW pour into Menindee Lakes near the junction of the three major Basin states. The Conservation Council asserts that around 40% of SA’s water entitlement used to come from the Darling system. However, in recent years nearly all SA’s water has had to be sourced from the Murray River as the Darling River has struggled with too much water being removed for irrigation.

Conservation Council Healthy Rivers campaigner Kate McBride said:

“Upstream states have had years to make the various efficiency, supply and constraints projects work to return more water to the River; if they can’t get their act together now the water must be returned in other ways."
“We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: voluntary buyback from willing sellers is the cheapest, most efficient way to return water to the Basin.
“Upstream states have been lagging on all aspects of the Basin Plan – particularly the supply, constraints and efficiency measures (SDLAM projects) that are supposed to deliver more water to the Basin - and because of this they don’t deserve any extensions,” she said.

The VFF told FlowNews24 earlier this week that it wanted the federal government's policy commitment of no further buybacks to be made law, although their Water Council chair Andrew Leahy conceded it might be difficult to get such a change the Basin legislation through a Senate the federal government does not control.

NSW Farmers Vice President and Water Taskforce chair Xavier Martin said in a statement:

“Following the welcome removal of on-farm water recovery and growing opposition to a number of water recovery offset projects, these original agreements for water recovery will not be achieved by the 2024 deadline.”
“It is time for the Commonwealth to recognise this and allow flexibility and the introduction of community supported water recovery offset projects.”
“Farmers in NSW need certainty that the Commonwealth will not revert to water buybacks if the water recovery offset project targets fall short.”

The federal, South Australian and New South Wales water ministers were all approached for comment on Tuesday but have provided a response.