UNPOPULAR water buybacks are set to be removed from the agenda in the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
The Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) has released its long awaited report on the package of 36 sustainable diversion limit adjustment projects proposed by Basin State governments.
These are the so-called ‘downwater’ river flow efficiency projects which must be handed to federal Water Minister Barnaby Joyce who has until December 15 to accept, or reject the package.
MDBA executive director environmental management Carl Binning said the projects would return enough water, 605 gigaltires in total, to make further direct recovery through buybacks unnecessary.
“Should the projects be implemented, this would mean more water can remain in the system for other users, including households and industry, and no further water recovery will be required in the southern Basin,” Mr Binning said.
The Basin Plan requires water use be reduced by the 2750GL recovery target, to reset the maximum annual take to 10,873GL. The annual take is known as the sustainable diversion limit, or SDL.
The SDL adjustment projects are in-stream works and measures that deliver an equivalent to water saving by improving flow, and reducing wastage – by improving weirs, channels and a range of other measures.
The SDLs knock 605GL off the recovery target and keep the additional water in play for irrigation. If the SDL projects did not recover sufficient volumes to hit 2750GL, further buybacks may have been needed to make up the shortfall.
“It’s not a small number and it’s more than 20 per cent of the recovery target for the Basin, which is 2750GLs and quite critically if that 605GLs is agreed by the Commonwealth water minister at the end of this year, it’ll mean no more water recovery from irrigation communities in the southern Basin,” Mr Binning said.
National Irrigators Council chief executive Steve Whan said he had “cautious optimism” about the MDBA’s assessment of SDL adjustment measures.
“Based on the assurance that the 605 GL projected saving means no more water needs to be recovered, this is a very welcome step.
“It is important to remember that there is a long way to go on the planning and consultation on these projects, but the legislation requires this step to be taken with an overall estimate that will be verified when the projects are in place.”
Mr Whan said there may still be many questions about the project’s details but there was plenty of time to deal with those, in the years they took to plan and implement.
“Anyone who wants to see the Basin Plan succeed should welcome this announcement along with taking the opportunity to comment and provide feedback for state governments on issues they need to consider in planning,” he said.
The projects will implement changes to the rules governing river operations to allow water for the environment to be more effectively managed, Mr Binning said.
“Today we invite interested members of the public to provide feedback on the assessment,” he said.
“We will review all feedback and use this to finalise our assessment and advice, which will be provided to the Commonwealth water minister by December 15, 2017.
“This is just the start of the process.
“Basin state governments have until 2024 to complete the projects and have committed to working with communities, industries and water experts on further progressing project design and implementation.”
Mr Binning said the Basin Plan - signed into law 2012 - was a historic agreement between state and Commonwealth governments, setting a clear pathway to 2024 to restore the health of river and it was “on track”.
“Today’s assessment is another key milestone achieved – but it’s worth taking a little step back,” he said.
“The Murray Darling Basin Plan is a long term reform and it’s a reform that goes right through to 2026.
“It’s about safeguarding a national asset and our rivers, our agricultural industries and communities and fundamentally it sets limits on how much water can be used for towns, irrigation and other industries etc.
“These projects have been nominated by the states, to make the plan more flexible.
“The idea when the plan was set, was that the 2750GLs recovery target could be varied in two ways.
“The first is projects nominated by states that use water for environment more efficiently and effectively so a good example of that is some infrastructure that may be installed which allows water to get to a flood pain that it hasn’t been able to get to for a long period time, and at places like the Barmah-Millewa Forest that’s happening.
“There are also smarter ways of managing the river, so releasing water in late winter and early spring before the irrigation demands come on creates more space in our dams and it’s also the time when many environments want water, so we can achieve a whole bunch of benefits that allows water to become available for consumption.”
Mr Binning said the other way the Basin Pan allowed SDLs to be adjusted was by being smarter in the way irrigation districts are managed and how new technologies are managed on farm.
“There’s also a goal through to 2024 of achieving another 450GLs of savings but this time it’s from in investments in on-farm efficiencies and irrigation practice efficiency measures,” he said.
“That water would then allow water to come back to use for the environment.
“In this way, when the plan was set, the idea was that, by being smarter about the way we can use water, we could achieve more for the environment and more for agricultural industries.
“The water that’s used more effectively for the environment we’ve determined that those 36 projects can deliver 605GLs and that means no more recovery required, from irrigation.
“And then there’s a separate program which aims to achieve on-farm efficiency and irrigation efficiency to make more water available for the environment – so if you like the opposite – and that scheme is only just starting but it will run through to 2024 and aims to recover 450GLs.”
Mr Binning said while the 36 projects underpinning the 605GLs in SDLs relates to the ways the timing of water flows and water volumes can be manipulated, many other water management tools were also “really important”.
“Water quality and water health needs to be good, habitat needs to be good, wetlands need to be good, and we need to address pest species like carp or feral pigs in some of the national parks etc,” he said.
“All these things in the water management business are called complimentary measures and they’re absolutely critical to delivering the outcomes for the Basin Plan.
“Work is continuing for the release of the carp herpes virus - with a target release date of 2019 - and we’re very optimistic and enthusiastic about anything that can control carp populations in the Basin because carp are by far the largest fish population in the basin but they’re like a pest species.
“And in the same way CSIRO did their work on Calicivirus and Myxomatosis they really saved agricultural Australia from a scourge of plague rabbit populations and hopefully this can do the same for native fish populations in our rivers.”