The ABC’s Four Corners program on Monday night aired allegations that billions of dollars had flowed to corporate irrigators, helping them to plant crops which required vast amounts of water.
Water Minister David Littleproud said the government was proud to invest in efficiency projects despite claims the Commonwealth cash favoured cotton and almond farmers.
Under the On-Farm Irrigation Efficiency Program, the Federal Government hands out grants for projects to recover water for the environment.
Littleproud said the scheme had helped farmers grow more with less water, through projects like replacing leaking drains with modern pipes.
The government said water efficiency projects had returned 700 gigalitres to the environment, with 95 per cent of the 1500 grants worth less than $1 million.
Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has renewed demands for a federal royal commission into the basin and urged the government to immediately freeze the infrastructure funding.
“This isn’t a debate anymore about the environment versus farming. This is about big business versus everybody else,” she told reporters in Adelaide on Tuesday.
“Thirteen billion dollars of taxpayers’ money was meant to be put aside to save the Murray-Darling but instead what we’ve got is an absolute rort.”
Conservation SA said the current Murray-Darling plan remained the “best shot” for protecting the system but called for an immediate water audit to determine the level of water flowing through the basin.
Chief executive Craig Wilkins also urged the government to put voluntary water buybacks back on the table and to establish an oversight body to ensure water usage rules were being followed.
But the Murray-Darling Basin Authority said the basin plan was already delivering real water to the environment while doing the least harm to farming communities.
“More than 2000 gigalitres of water is now held for the environment and is being used to make a real difference,” the authority said in a statement.
It said research also showed that while direct water purchases were cheaper than investing in irrigation infrastructure, they caused more social and economic harm.
The cotton industry also backed efficiency projects which it said allowed irrigators to do more with their remaining water allocations.
“For the sake of Australia’s agricultural capacity, food security and regional communities, we prefer water is recovered through efficiency measures,” Cotton Australia general manager Michael Murray said.
“We are in the middle of an extreme drought. No party, the environment or irrigators, have the water they want.
“But the plan, and the water it has secured for the environment, is delivering right now, with environmental flows making their way through the basin.”
Labor water spokeswoman Terri Butler described the allegations as explosive and said the government should explain the details of 72 payments worth more than $1 million each made under the program.
“There are no jobs on a dead river. And you can’t irrigate crops once the water dries up,” she said.
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