Water ministers are on the cusp of a “momentous” decision on the Murray Darling Basin Plan that could see the controversial rescue plan delivered in full.
The imminent deal, which could be reached as soon as Friday afternoon, follows years of political bickering, with basin states often refusing to negotiate, or threatening to walk away from the $13 billion plan altogether.
The future of Adelaide’s largely abandoned desalination plant is also likely to be discussed when water ministers meet in Melbourne on Friday.
The ABC understands increased desalination has been touted as a possible measure to reduce Adelaide’s reliance on the River Murray for drinking water, and to east pressure on the river system.
Ministers will gather amid a significant de-escalation in tensions that often railroaded previous ministerial council meetings.
SA Water Minister David Speirs said a fresh brace of water ministers — himself included — had helped.
“I think we have seen a change of personnel at the table — Barnaby Joyce is no longer there and Ian Hunter is no longer there representing South Australia,” Mr Speirs said.
“We know that former SA water minister Ian Hunter had very significant disagreements with Minister Joyce and Victoria’s Water Minister Lisa Neville which were publicly documented, which didn’t help SA or the national situation,” he said.
New South Wales Water Minister Niall Blair agreed.
“I think we are close to an end of the bickering, this could be a momentous meeting, it could put an end to the negativity that some people have had fear and concern over,” Mr Blair said.
“We’re finally seeing politics left at the door, and it was a shame we saw that introduced in the past, centred around the South Australia election, but we are past that now.
“We have a chance to put to bed one of the missing pieces of the plan so we can move to an implantation phase.”
Hope for shift towards ‘policies, not politics’
The ministers are expected to decide what criteria will determine whether more water will be recovered from rural communities, in addition to the original 2750 gigalitres.
The plan could save an extra 450GL by buying water from farmers and setting it aside for the environment, or new infrastructure projects that save water, provided these measures do not have negative impact communities in the basin.
Mr Blair said the states and Commonwealth are close to agreeing on a set of measures to assess the economic impact of those projects, to determine if they can go ahead.
“I can’t sit there and sign off on anything that would continue the pain in our communities, so we want a test and we want to know what the outcomes will be,” he said.
“It needs to have water saving, but also provide a socioeconomic benefit or at least neutrality, then we are happy to sign up for it.”
Mr Speirs said he still has some concerns about the test, but is prepared to negotiate with the states and Commonwealth.
“It is critically important we have guidelines developed which gives us an understanding of what positive or neutral projects look like,” he said.
“We cannot end in a situation where the guidelines and principals are too tight to enable a project to go ahead, we don’t want to see project wrapped up in red tape.
“South Australia supports the participation test and doesn’t want to see other jurisdictions back away from that.”
Riverland grape grower, Jack Papageorgiou, said he is hopeful Friday’s meetings will finally give certainty to basin farmers.
“As an irrigator or a member of the community, we want politicians to know we are sick and tired of politics, we want policies, not politics,” he said.
Adelaide’s desalination plant lifeline
Increasing water production from Adelaide’s desalination plant has been touted as one option that could reduce pressure on the River Murray.
Adelaide currently uses around 90GL of water a year, most of which comes from the River Murray, while its desalination plant produces about 8GL, despite having the capacity to produce 100GL.
“Adelaide uses around 90GL of water a year [and] the desalination plant has the capacity to provide the capacity of that water [instead of the river],” Mr Speirs said.
Mr Speirs said if the desalination plant was used, it would mean more water would stay in the River Murray, making the 450GL water savings target more achievable.
However, that would come at a significant cost to Adelaide water users.
Mr Speirs said for the desalination to work as a water saving measure, the cost of running it would need to be covered by someone else.
“Federal Water Minister David Littleproud has suggested they are open to having the conversation [about the desalination plant], but we haven’t talked money,” Mr Speirs said.
Mr Littleproud, who toured the facility during a trip to Adelaide earlier this month, did not reply to the ABC’s request for comment.
“He seems very positive about that piece of infrastructure and how it fits within the Murray Darling Basin Plan, but we need to study that impact and cost first,” Mr Speirs said.
Mr Papageorgiou said he would welcome the desalination plant being turned on if meant more water in the river for farmers and the environment.
“They can’t keep telling us as irrigators that we are going to face cutbacks,” he said.
“We want to make sure our State Government plays its role and turns the desal plant on, because it was built for a purpose.”
Environmentalists want a win
Environmental groups are hoping the Commonwealth and states governments can reach an agreement on how to secure the extra 450GL during the talks.
“Ministers must get on with the job of returning water to rivers, our rivers and their wildlife are still struggling through lack of water and are unable to cope with the impacts of drought and climate change,” Environment Victoria spokesman Juliet Le Feuvre said.
“A fully implemented Basin Plan is our best chance of both protecting rivers and giving irrigation a sustainable future.”
Megan Williams, River Country Coordinator for Friends of the Earth agreed.
“Water for the environment plays an integral role in maintaining ecosystems, communities and culture,” she said.
“We must focus water recovery and river restoration through the basin plan, especially during times of drought.”
However, Speak Up, a group which claims to represent the interests of Basin communities, said taking another 450GL out from farming would devastate those who rely on it.
“These communities are at breaking point from the social and economic impacts and lost production,” Speak Up spokesman Tom Chesson said.
Victorian water minister Lisa Neville said the test that her state had developed with New South Wales would ensure basin communities were taken care of.
“We know that the water that has come out [so far] has a had an impact, we absolutely know that from the work we’ve had done,” she said.
“This criteria that we are hoping to get support for at the meeting on Friday really sets a robust measure to ensure there is no further water recovery that makes the situation worse in those communities.”
Topics: agricultural-policy, federal-government, government-and-politics, agribusiness, rivers, murray-darling-basin, water, water-management, environment, australia, parliament-house-2600, sydney-2000, adelaide-5000, melbourne-3000