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Murray authority defends water grab

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Communities at both ends of the Murray-Darling system are gearing up for a fight, with the river authority defending its plan to remove 70 gigalitres of water from the previously agreed targets for environmental flows.

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There is political outrage in South Australia at the proposed move and State Government threats of a new “save the Murray” campaign, but upstream irrigators are also unhappy and are lobbying for deeper cuts to the water recovery targets.

The Murray Darling Basin Authority today confirmed it wanted to cut the water recovery targets included in the 2012 agreement, down to 320 gigalitres from the previous level of 390GL.

Authority chief Phillip Glyde said the new recovery target was determined following three years of study into the socioeconomic impact of the plan.

“We have concluded that the best balance between water use and environment is a new number – 70 gigalitres less,” he told ABC TV.

The authority found that reducing the water recovery target from 390GL to 320GL in the north would save about 200 jobs in irrigation dependent communities.

“But we don’t lose much in terms of environmental outcomes,” Glyde said.

Federal Water Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said he strongly supported the new target, which he argued was in keeping with the original agreement.

“… it’s a recognition that the whole purpose of the plan at the start and the way it operated was that there’d be an assessment of these facts and the review was an assessment of those facts,” Joyce told ABC radio.

“You’ve got to assess the lives of the people. (The agreement) always talked about balance between social outcomes, economic outcomes and environmental outcomes. One should never reign supreme over the others because you just can’t do that to people. Although it’s not my decision, I strongly support it because I do think you’ve got a moral responsibility for those who are doing it tough to not make their life tougher.”

His assistant minister, South Australian Liberal Anne Ruston, was much less definitive about the Government’s view of the plan this morning.

“The 70 gigalitres that has been recommended by the Murray Darling Basin as part of its statutory compulsory review, is a document of the Murray Darling Basin Authority, which has been provided to Government this morning,” Ruston told ABC 891.

“We haven’t responded to it, so nothing’s locked in stone…”

She said the Government may have to look at other ways to deliver the promised environmental flows to the river system, including via efficiencies.

“If we have to look at more inventive ways, do more research, look at difference science and be more creative about how we deliver this water for South Australia then let’s do it,” she said. “But there is no way that we, Barnaby Joyce or anybody else in the Federal Government can unilaterally make a decision to change the Basin Plan.”

South Australian Water Minister Ian Hunter said that Ruston and Joyce were sending different messages.

“I just wish that Senator Ruston was the Water Minister,” he said. “I can deal with her, I can work with her, she has shared values. But what I heard from Barnaby Joyce was simply the opposite to that. He told me he can’t deliver this plan and can we look at another way of carving up that bucket of money so that agriculturalists get their hands on it upstream, you know people like cotton farmers and rice farmers.”

The Murray-Darling plan stipulates that 3200GL in total must be delivered to environment flows through the system by 2024. The authority will go out to consultation of the plan to remove 70GL from the northern basin’s contribution to these flows. The task for the northern water users will be to show that there won’t be any net loss to the environmental flows, hence Ruston’s reference to efficiencies.

State Liberal leader Steven Marshall said the implementation of the full Murray-Darling Basin Plan was “non-negotiable”.

“We will not consent to upstream states wriggling out of their part of the deal to deliver 3,200 GL,” he said.

“We also need to ensure we continue doing our bit in SA to secure the long term health of the Murray. That includes properly assessing potential environmental engineering options and implementing them where appropriate.”

Consultation on the proposed adjustment will continue until February next year.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the government was committed to implementing the original basin plan.

“It’s obviously important to get the balance right, as we have to,” he told reporters in Canberra.

Turnbull accused Labor of embarking on water buybacks “here, there and everywhere” without any strategy while in government.

“And that’s what caused many of the structural problems in irrigation communities,” he said.

Despite concern downstream, irrigation communities in southern Queensland and northern NSW are far from happy with the reduced water recovery target.

The #MoreThanFlow campaign says the new target still takes too much water from production, and argues it should not be any higher than the 278GL taken out now.

“We cannot support any recommendation that will inflict more pain on communities or unilaterally reduce the reliability of entitlements,” spokesman Michael Murray said in Canberra.

The Federal Government has ordered a task force to look at how water recovery in the northern part of the basin affects communities.

Water storages across the entire basin are 80 per cent full following above-average winter and spring rains.

The task force has been asked to ensure further water recovery is managed in a way that avoids putting further strain on communities already doing it tough, Water Minister Joyce said.

“I welcome the reduced target and don’t want to see any more water taken out of basin communities than is absolutely necessary to secure the long-term health of the system,” he said.

“While significantly less water recovery will be required to meet the reduced target there will still be a gap to bridge.”

The task force will look at investing in modern and efficient irrigation infrastructure that would help save water and increase farm productivity.

Labor has accused Joyce of walking away from the basin plan after he wrote to South Australian Water Minister Hunter and raised difficulties with returning an additional 450GL to the system.

Joyce said basin governments were heading into “an unsolvable stalemate” with no proposal to deliver the extra water without causing extra socioeconomic pain.

Environmental advocacy groups are also unhappy with the moves.

Environment Victoria says the proposed targets for the northern basin and elsewhere would be a disaster for rivers and communities.

“Today’s announcement means the basin plan is unravelling before our eyes,” healthy rivers campaign manager Juliet Le Feuvre said.

“Reducing water recovery targets in the Darling and its northern tributaries mean that the river and downstream communities will suffer.”

The fight over the plan resulted in Hunter launching a foul-mouthed tirade at Joyce in an Adelaide restaurant last week.

Hunter has since apologised for his bad language.

– with AAP

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