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  • Rikki Lambert

Victoria, NSW ask for more time to reach Murray-Darling water targets

The Victorian and New South Wales state governments have told FlowNews24 overnight that they want more time to reach Murray-Darling Basin Plan environmental water recovery targets, currently due in 2024. The federal water minister, Keith Pitt, has urged states to get on with it.

FlowNews24 has reported across the last week the calls from irrigators and stakeholders for greater flexibility in reaching recovery targets, and certainty for farmers on when, and how, water might be recovered to reach the overall 3,200 gigalitre water savings. At last count, states were approximately ⅔ of the way there.

Reaching the remainder of the target is proving difficult as, in some cases, local community support has not yet been secured.

A bipartisan federal 2018 Basin Plan revision saw the primary 2,750GL recovery target reduced by 605GL on the assurance from states they could achieve that component through efficiency measures, rather than buybacks of water entitlements from farmers. A further 450GL was added to the overall target, which must be achieved via efficiency measures.

The South Australian government has told FlowNews24 previously that whilst it is optimistic that states can reach their targets through efficiency measures, buybacks may be needed if they fall short by the legislated 2024 deadline.

Federal minister wants states to get on with it

Federal water minister Keith Pitt told FlowNews24 in a statement on Thursday morning that the government has made a significant investment, and states should get on with the projects:

"There is still three years to go until 2024, and there is still around $4 billion available to support projects to help meet the Basin Plan targets.
"This is $4 billion that should be out in communities, improving water infrastructure and creating jobs.
"Australia is recovering from the COVID crisis, and now is not the time for states to focus on what they say they can’t do.
"It is time to get on with business and deliver for regional communities, and I urge Basin states to work with us on what is possible and what can be delivered."

States want more time

In a statement to FlowNews24 late on Wednesday, the NSW government said it needs more time:

"(NSW's) position on this is well known and (has been) made it clear over the past two Ministerial Council meetings that NSW cannot deliver all of the projects contributing to the 605 GL Sustainable Diversion Limit targets in their current form by the 2024 deadline. This is not just (NSW's) view, but the finding of a growing number of inquiries.
"Basin Water Ministers are beginning to acknowledge the fact that we need more time to further develop good projects, and spend the time needed to ensure that our communities are at the centre of the project development and implementation.
"Key projects such as the Menindee Lakes project cannot be delivered in their current state. The NSW Government will not pursue projects that do not have broad community support."

The Victorian Farmers Federation has told FlowNews24 it is opposed to buybacks in the southern Basin, and is also opposed tot he additional 450GL recovery target.

Victoria's acting water minister, Richard Wynne, said in its Wednesday afternoon statement to FlowNews24:

"We need an adaptive approach to ensure the best outcome for the environment and communities is achieved and this can only happen with close consultation into our communities.
"The Commonwealth should extend the 2024 delivery date so that worthwhile projects can be delivered, achieving environmental outcomes and protecting communities from water recovery impacts."

Who's doing the heavy lifting?

Both states respectively said they had done the 'heavy lifting' in the Basin Plan, with NSW saying:

"Our communities have already done the heavy lifting in terms of Basin Plan implementation and we need to ensure that the remaining tasks acknowledge the impact that prolonged drought, bushfires and more recently the pandemic have had on regional areas."

while Mr Wynne said:

"Victorian communities have done the heavy lifting and Victoria has now recovered more than 800 gigalitres of our 1,075 gigalitre obligation under the Plan."

Will states reach their targets?

Mr Wynne added that Victoria was optimistic it would reach their 2024 targets for within the 605GL band:

"Delivery of Victoria’s share of the 605 gigalitre offset projects will help us meet the remainder of our commitment and most of our projects are on track to be completed by 2024.
"The Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Limit program — the 605 gigalitre projects — ensures better environmental outcomes are achieved for the rivers, wetlands and birds and fish using less water – in fact many of these projects will achieve outcomes that couldn’t be achieved at all by just adding water."

However, the Victorian acting water minister's language was more guarded about progress towards the 450GL band:

"All recovery towards the 450 gigalitres must meet the strict socio-economic criteria agreed in 2018 by all states and the Commonwealth to ensure there are no harmful impacts on communities.
"Victoria is meeting its obligations under this program – and I’ve just announced with the Commonwealth that a project to modernise irrigation systems in the Goulburn Murray Irrigation District will proceed and eventually deliver 15.9 gigalitres towards our Basin obligations – without taking water from farmers."

Similarly, New South Wales highlighted that it would not support water recovery from farmers, saying it wants 'ongoing commitment' that any 'water recovery gap' is not achieved via buyback during 2024:

"The NSW Government supports the Federal Government’s policy announced in September last year that the remaining water recovery will focus on off-farm efficiencies rather than licence purchases. We will seek ongoing commitment to this policy for any water recovery gap that remains in 2024.

The South Australian government has been approached for comment. The SA government stated in November that it opposed extending the Plan beyond 2024.


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