The two sides of politics reached an agreement on Monday to pass elements of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan that aim to do more for the environment with less water.
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) wants to return less water to the environment in the southern basin, saying it needs to balance the need to improve the river’s health with the need to protect jobs in irrigation-dependent communities.
Water Minister David Littleproud said the deal would give the Murray-Darling Basin’s 2 million residents clarity so they could get on with their lives.
The news was greeted with joy by the Southern Riverina Irrigators, a group representing more than 2,000 farmers along the Murray River in New South Wales.
Doing more with less
The agreement will pass a plan to undertake works on the river system to deliver water to key sites more efficiently.
It means 605 fewer gigalitres of water will be taken for the environment.
The deal also supports a plan to reduce the take for the environment by 70 gigalitres in the northern half of the river system.
Irrigators said the deal provided certainty about how much water would be available in the Murray-Darling Basin and how the system would work once the plan was finalised.
“We will have certainty for ourselves, our businesses, our communities and our environment as well,” Ms Coupland said.
“Volume alone will not fix the environmental challenges along our river system.
“We need measures to make sure the water gets to where it needs to be, when it needs to be there, to make sure we achieve what we need to achieve for the environment.”
The Australian Dairy Industry Council also welcomed the deal, but with some reservations.
“It’s amazing what can be achieved with bipartisanship when there is no South Australian election involved,” the council’s water spokesman Daryl Hoey said.
Devil in the detail
The original basin plan was for 2,750 gigalitres of water to be taken for the environment. That amount will now be reduced.
But while Labor was in government the plan changed, when then-prime minister Julia Gillard and water minister Penny Wong signed the states up to another 450 gigalitres of water for the environment, if it could be shown the water could be attained without socioeconomic impact.
In a statement announcing the deal, Mr Littleproud said the 450 gigalitres of water would be recovered for the basin.
“The Government has reiterated its commitment to the 450 gigalitres, and the process of attaining it can now begin,” he said.
But that part of the deal has angered the dairy industry, which has lost the bulk of its water in the southern Murray-Darling and believes the region cannot afford to lose any more.
“If that water is going to be taken through off-farm and no more on-farm efficiency programs or out of urban water then great, go for it,” Mr Hoey said.
Indigenous groups want more for environment
Aboriginal groups have welcomed their recognition as part of the deal.
Labor negotiated for a commitment to roll out cultural flows research, and an allocation of $40 million across the basin to support acquisition of Aboriginal cultural and economic water entitlements.
Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN), a group representing traditional owners in the southern basin, described the plan as a positive step towards recognition of Aboriginal water rights.
However, the group is concerned about the deal for the environment.
“This is long overdue, bipartisan recognition of First Nations’ rights to own and manage water on our country,” acting chairman Grant Rigney said.
“We will be seeking immediate clarification from the Government about the delivery of this funding package.
“Unfortunately, cutting 605 billion litres from the water recovery target in the basin risks undermining some of the very outcomes the package seeks to protect.
“MLDRIN will remain vigilant to ensure projects are rigorously scrutinised and that our members’ cultural heritage is protected.”