Water buybacks targeted
Committee responds to wave of anger.
Farming communities along the Murray and Darling rivers have welcomed a bipartisan report that has called for an end to non-strategic water buybacks and criticised the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s proposed cuts to farm water allocations.
The House of Representatives Regional Australia Committee inquiry was set up in the wake of widespread anger across Basin communities which feared the consequences for their farms, businesses and towns if the authority pressed ahead with plans to reduce water allocations.
Chaired by independent MP Tony Windsor (New England, NSW), the committee set out to balance the economic needs of farming communities along the Murray-Darling with the environmental needs of a river system long ravaged by over-allocation and a decade of drought.
During public hearings across the Basin, many irrigators, town mayors and business people rallied to tell MPs that these river communities faced annihilation if farmers’ water entitlements were cut by thousands of gigalitres so as to return more water to the river’s environmental flow.
Releasing the committee’s report, Of drought and flooding rains, Mr Windsor said the health of the river system can be maintained by making significant water savings without the significant cut in allocations to irrigators.
“We believe our committee report does find a way in what we call a winwin solution,” Mr Windsor said.
“Similar outcomes can be achieved through working with the community, working with government investment in terms of on-farm efficiencies and environmental water efficiencies, evaporative savings – a whole range of proposals.”
The report recommended all nonstrategic water buybacks be put on hold. It called for no mining projects to be approved in the Basin if they have an adverse impact on water resources. The committee also recommended the establishment of a national water fund to finance various water-saving projects as a joint venture between federal, state and territory governments.
The committee was scathing of the Basin Authority’s consultation process before and after it released its guide to the proposed Basin Plan in late 2010, in which it proposed water cutbacks of between 3,000 and 4,000 gigalitres to ensure a more sustainable river system. The committee’s report called on the authority to develop a proper community engagement strategy.
“It was very obvious the authority hadn’t done a good job in terms of discussing the issues with the community,” Mr Windsor said.
“To have the fairly brutal cuts to entitlement as a way to solve the obvious issues within the river system – the way in which that was marketed wasn’t the correct way to go.”
The committee’s call for all nonstrategic water buybacks to be put on hold was welcomed by all farming communities along the river system.
Victorian Farmers Federation president Andrew Broad said Victorian irrigators were also calling on the federal government to halt water buybacks until their full impact upon rural communities is assessed.
“It is disappointing that it has taken the release of this report to finally highlight the concerns of irrigators which have been so long ignored,” he said. “We now expect the government to adopt the report’s recommendations regarding a more strategic approach to buybacks.”
Upstream the Queensland Farmers’ Federation also supported the report’s findings, especially the call to establish a water fund for water recovery programs. The QFF welcomed this fund’s manager being responsible for strategic and localised approaches to buybacks as well as infrastructure programs.
According to the QFF, this approach should deliver “more accountable water recovery programs but we will wait to see if it will take a more responsive and cost efficient approach to water recovery or simply result in another level of costly bureaucracy”.
“Irrigators will welcome quick action on the recommendation to cease all non-strategic water purchases by prioritising buybacks to achieve the lowest possible impact on communities.”
While the Australian Conservation Foundation welcomed the report, the environmentalist group was against the committee’s calls for voluntary water buybacks to be re-assessed.
ACF’s healthy rivers campaigner Arlene Harriss-Buchan said the inquiry has importantly reaffirmed bipartisan commitment to water reform and the implementation of a good Basin Plan.
“But we are very concerned by the suggestion that the successful and effective program of voluntary water buybacks should be suspended,” Dr Harriss-Buchan said.
“Voluntary buybacks return real water to the environment and provide real benefits for taxpayers’ investment. The efficiency and effectiveness of the voluntary buyback program has been acknowledged by the National Audit Office.”
Dr Harriss-Buchan said healthy communities depend on healthy rivers and for rivers to return to health the environment needs more water.
“But, as Environment Minister Tony Burke has said, delay is the enemy of water reform,” she said. “We must not put the brakes on the important voluntary buyback scheme.
“ACF urges the government to reject any moves to slow down or stop the successful and effective program of voluntary buybacks of water entitlements.”
Water and Environment Minister Tony Burke, Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig and Regional Australia Minister Simon Crean all welcomed the committee’s recommendations in a joint response.
“We welcome this report as part of a process of building community and parliamentary support for reforms to deliver a healthy river system, economic capacity and sustainable communities in the Murray Darling Basin,” it states.
“The Murray Darling Basin Authority has committed to considering the findings and recommendations of the Standing Committee’s inquiry before releasing its Draft Basin Plan.
“The Gillard government wants Murray Darling Basin reform to deliver three outcomes: healthy working rivers, strong communities and sustainable food production.
“This report is important for the more than two million people who live in the Basin including farm communities that are committed to be efficient and sustainable contributors to Australia’s economy.”
According to the ministers, the government remains committed to delivering a final plan for the Murray Darling Basin to the federal parliament in early 2012.