Murray Darling Basin communities had a win on Friday, with the council of interstate water ministers resolving to pursue off-farm water sources in the recovery of a 450 gigalitres bucket of ‘upwater’ which is required for the environment by 2024.
The Ministerial Council met in Canberra amid a gathering of people who had converged from across the Basin to remind the politicians of the economic pain they see flowing from water recovery.
On-farm infrastructure schemes have been mooted as the prime source of the upwater.
But farmer representatives are concerned at the impact of reductions to irrigation entitlements, which form the backbone of many Basin economies.
Community groups have been urging ministers to instead steer a course towards off-farm recovery methods.
They argue recovery from sources such as recycling stormwater from urban areas, or capturing water from industrial use, should be used to limit socio-economic impacts on regional communities.
Communities and farm groups have also been concerned that the Basin Plan for criteria for socio-economic outcomes missed impacts of water recovery on towns.
The criteria currently in use assesses the impact of water recovery on a farm-by-farm basis, rather than on a regional scale.
Speaking after Friday's meeting, Federal Water Minister David Littleproud delivered what will be welcome news to many across the Basin.
MinCo agreed to prioritise off-farm recovery and that new criteria would be developed by NSW and Victoria to asses socio-economic impacts.
The Federal Water Department will launch an infrastructure investment scheme for off-farm recovery – which will be extended to include on-farm works in South Australia, Queensland and the ACT.
Mr Littleproud said a potential 369GL had been identified for recovery from off-sources.
“The 450GL will only be delivered with neutral or positive social and economic outcomes. MinCo has agreed to this,” Mr Littleproud said.
“We need further work to develop detailed additional criteria defining neutral or positive socio-economic impacts. We'll aim to have this done by Christmas.
“In the meantime, let’s get cracking on the off-farm, urban and industrial projects.”
National Irrigators Council chief executive Steve Whan welcomed the off-farm focus, and the commitment to reassess socio-economic impacts.
“There are no losers today and there will be no losses for the environment either, the upwater will still be delivered,” Mr Whan said.
“Very sensibly, they’re doing this in a way that respects that one-size-fits-all on-farm efficiency schemes aren’t appropriate.”
Victoria Water Minister Lisa Neville took a stand against on-farm upwater in the lead up to MinCo.
“We’ll take off-farm projects to the table in Canberra that we can deliver — but we will not commit to on-farm works, which will just hurt Victorian communities,” Ms Neville said on Thursday.
The Basin Plan was designed to deliver environmental benefits equivalent to returning 3200 gigalitres of water to the environment.
The Plan has two big buckets of water to fill: 2750GL worth of so-called ‘downwater’ and 450GL of ‘upwater’.
Upwater The crucial point about upwater is the Basin Plan rules require that it does not have net negative impacts on Basin communities.
The ministers also committed to deliver by June next year up to 64GL of the upwater, with around 25GL to 30GL coming from identified on-farm and stormwater works, and more than 35GL to come from NSW – which look likely to come from off-farm and toolkit measures in the Northern Basin.
An on-farm irrigation efficiency pilot to recover 2GL to 5GL is underway in South Australia. In Victoria channel upgrades and pipelining are slated to deliver up to 9GL and in the Australian Capital Territory an urban water initiative is expected to yield 15GL.
Downwater Basin Plan rules make at least 62GL of upwater contingent to the Murray Darling Basin Authority's approval of downwater projects – which are a suite of 37 infrastructure works and rule changes that deliver savings equivalent to 605GL being returned to the environment.
The 2750GL of ‘downwater’ bucket is nearly full. The 605GL worth of equivalency measures is all that’s required to top it up. The 2750GL came three ways:
*Direct buybacks of water entitlements from irrigators.
*Commonwealth investment schemes that swap a portion of an irrigators water holdings for financial contributions to make farm infrastructure more efficient.
*Offset projects – which are river works and measures that move water more to environmental assets like wetlands more efficiently.