Extended timeframes to deliver the Murray-Darling Basin Plan are necessary, evidence-based, and recommended in multiple reviews of the reform’s implementation progress.
“This is not about delays but acting on recommendations from the Productivity Commission and other reviews to achieve the remaining Basin Plan requirements properly,” said NSW Irrigators’ Council (NSWIC) CEO Claire Miller.
“Official reviews and inquiries have consistently warned the Basin Plan’s timeframes are ambitious, if not unrealistic, and that more time will be needed.
“It is hardly surprising that the NSW Government is acting on the findings and recommendations in reviews, from the Productivity Commission in 2018 to the most recent WESA review.”
The Plan’s centrepiece has been achieved, with Sustainable Diversion Limits now in place. More than 2107 gigalitres has also been recovered, mainly through purchases from farmers and water saving projects, exceeding the 2,075GL Bridging the Gap target.
What’s left is largely delivering ‘supply’ projects designed to meet environmental objectives, including constraints management to get water into wetlands on public and private land.
“Sustainable Diversion Limits came into effect in 2019, and no timeframe extension changes that reality,” said Ms Miller.
“Nor does it change the fact nearly one in three litres of irrigation water has already come out of food and fibre production to create healthier and more resilient rivers and floodplains.”
The Productivity Commission’s five-yearly review of the Plan’s implementation found:
The 2024 timeframe for these [supply] projects is ambitious, and most likely unrealistic.
Strictly enforcing the 2024 deadline could lead to the abandonment of worthwhile projects.
The Water for the Environment Special Account reviews similarly concluded that without extensions, vital projects would not be completed.
“The timeframe extension ensures worthwhile projects will be completed, without which we risk forgoing improved environmental outcomes.
“It should also enable flexibility for new and better projects to be added to the mix, which the Basin Plan’s rigid rules currently do not allow.
“Irrigators just want the Plan done and dusted, but not if meeting unrealistic deadlines is put before good outcomes.
“Criticism of NSW’s call to extend the timeframes is misguided. Rushing to implement the Plan against the expert evidence in multiple reviews would be wrong and ignores the complexity of this ambitious reform being implemented during very challenging circumstances.”
Throughout the implementation period, the Basin has experienced record-breaking droughts, floods, fires and a pandemic – none of this foreseen when the Plan was created.
“It’s really remarkable we’ve got this far given these challenges for Basin communities,” said Ms Miller.
“While the processes could definitely have been improved over the last decade, the fact is that implementation was always going to need more time than originally foreseen.
“This is a complex and ambitious reform. We have come a long way already, and we can go a lot further by working together.
“Adhering to unrealistic deadlines will cause more division and conflict, and Basin communities have had enough of that to last a lifetime.
“The priority should be getting the Basin Plan done in the best possible way, and that requires flexibility and adaptive management – that’s more important than an arbitrary timeframe determined over a decade ago.”