Report critical of basin plan

By Alana Christensen

A return to good management is needed to ensure the Murray-Darling Basin Plan stays on track, as community angst and a consensus the plan has been mismanaged and secretive continues to grow.

That was the message from the Productivity Commission, which released its five-year assessment into the plan and delivered a stern message to basin governments and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

The report has voiced serious concerns regarding a proposed 36 projects to deliver 605Gl of water back to the consumptive pool, stating the timeline should be extended to ensure the desired results are achieved.

State Member for Shepparton and Goulburn Murray Irrigation District water leadership co-chair Suzanna Sheed voiced her support for an extension of the July 1, 2024 timeline, believing the delay in getting the projects through parliament had resulted in a push to get started quickly.

‘‘There was an urgency to ‘let’s get them approved’ and ‘let’s get going’, but that doesn’t lead to good governance and good scientific follow-up,’’ she said.

The commission’s report found that some of the timelines were unrealistic and that institutional and governance arrangements were deficient.

Calls for an extension to the deadline were seconded by the Victorian Government, with the state waiting on federal funding to progress to the next stage of design and approvals.

Federal Water Minister David Littleproud said department officials were continuing to work on funding and other arrangements and he remained confident projects would begin from July 1, 2019 to ensure the projects could deliver the necessary water savings by the final 2024 timeline.

‘‘The report says the vast majority of the water required for the basin plan has already been recovered. All water needed has been recovered in 22 of 28 valleys,’’ Mr Littleproud said.

‘‘The fact is recovering water through infrastructure improvements costs more than water buybacks. Water buybacks would hurt regions like the Goulburn Valley and won’t happen on my watch.

‘‘Basin governments are working together to deliver constraints projects, to recover water with neutral or positive socioeconomic outcomes.’’

While awaiting funding for SDL projects, Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville said progress was being made.

‘‘Victoria is on track to deliver our 1075Gl share of water to improve the health of our rivers and land in the basin. We’ve already recovered or contracted to recover over 800Gl, and our part of the SDL projects will see us reach the target,’’ Ms Neville said.

Ms Neville also voiced her support for increased compliance across the basin, but stopped short of voicing support for a division of the MDBA’s responsibilities.

‘‘We’ll consider the findings of the Productivity Commission report,’’ she said.

Yet Ms Sheed said the conflict had gone on too long.

‘‘It’s a strong argument now for the separation of (the MDBA) into two so we have a proper compliance arm that is overseeing ... the whole of basin plan and ensure there’s integrity at every step,’’ she said.

‘‘It’s ludicrous that the Federal Government has allowed such a conflict to go unchecked for so long.’’

The report was critical of a number of facets of the plan, stating it believed community consultation was delivered with platitudes, timelines did not allow for genuine or effective community consultation and that there had been a lack of transparent process to demonstrate the water recovered had environmental value.

Addressing the former, a Federal Department of Agriculture and Water Resources spokesperson rejected the Productivity Commission’s claim.

‘‘The department rejects any suggestion that environmental water recovered under Commonwealth programs does not deliver environmental benefits,’’ the spokesperson said.