The Water Recovery Strategy to buy back another 49 GL from farmers has sent a shiver down the spine of irrigation communities across the Murray-Darling Basin.
“For months, the Federal Water Minister Tanya Plibersek promised all options are on the table, but instead is only pressing ahead with the most damaging and divisive option of all,” said NSW Irrigators Council CEO Claire Miller.
“The minister has also indicated in media reports that she’s contemplating buybacks to recover the additional 450 GL promised to South Australia.
“We’re being told the Government remains interested in receiving feasible, non-purchase-based projects, presumably towards shortfalls in the SDLAM 450 GL and 605 GL targets.
“But after this, why would any community trust the Government?
“The focus on buybacks as the first resort option is alarming, given the socio-economic and water market impacts of past buybacks well-documented by ABARES and in other reviews.”
Another 450 GL out of the irrigation pool is the equivalent of all the water left in the irrigation pool in the South Australian Riverland and the Victorian Sunraysia irrigation districts combined.
Or, it is almost as much as the water left in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation district, or the NSW Murray Irrigation system or the Goulburn Murray Irrigation District in northern Victoria.
“The minister needs to be upfront about which communities and towns she wants to shut down to deliver her Basin Plan,” said Ms Miller.
“There is nothing strategic about planned open tenders to buy back water to Bridge the Gap in the under-recovered valleys.
“As for going out to consult communities on this strategy after the Basin Ministerial Council on Friday – why bother? The decision has already been made.
“The mere entry of the Commonwealth into the market drove prices up in the last open tenders a decade ago, so those who have approached the Government already to sell are just hoping they will get paid a premium they wouldn’t get by selling to other farmers,’
“The Commonwealth is engaging in exactly the kind of anti-competitive behaviour that ACCC-recommended market reforms accepted by the Government are intended to prevent.
“Communities are already living with the pressure of less water at higher prices, thanks to buybacks a decade ago. Further buybacks will push many off the edge in the next drought.
“Much has changed since commitments on this ‘bridging-the-gap’ or under-recovered water were made a decade ago.
“The entire point of buybacks was reaching Sustainable Diversion Limits (SDLs), and we’re already there, including in these ‘under-recovered’ valleys. So, they can stop now.”
A recent SDL Compliance Report found NSW valleys were on average 17% below their SDL.
For example, the NSW Murray, where the Government is seeking to recover another 10 GL, is already 19% below its SDL. Similarly, the NSW Border Rivers, where the Government is seeking to recover another 5.1GL, is 21% below its SDL.
“The Basin Plan and earlier reforms have redirected 1 in 3 litres of irrigation water from growing food and fibre, to rivers. That water is credited with saving rivers in the 2019, said Ms Miller.
“The fact is there are other ways to free up more water for rivers. The next steps must now go beyond buybacks, towards integrated catchment management.
“This means addressing the key degradation drivers like invasive species control, habitat restoration, and blockages to fish passage. You can’t just add water to fix these.”
Total diversions in the Basin – including for irrigation, town water supplies and other industries – is down to just 28% of inflows, well within international standards.