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Environment and Water Minister Tanya Plibersek has extended the deadline indefinitely on the $13 billion plan to restore Australia’s largest river system, as Victoria and NSW stall on controversial schemes to return water to the environment from irrigation ahead of a hot, dry summer.
Plibersek announced on Tuesday she is working with state governments to extend the plan’s July 2024 deadline, warning that a potential drought-sparking El Nino event highlighted the need for state governments to work together to avoid environmental disaster.
Minister Tanya Plibersek has declared the Murray-Darling Basin Plan will be delayed beyond its 2024 deadline.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen/Janie Barrett
After a severe drought in 2019, the Darling River dried to a series of pools, precipitating a mass fish kill that claimed millions of animals in the far west of NSW.
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority has forecast that inflows to major rivers could halve by 2060 under the current trajectory of global warming.
The Basin Plan was agreed between the federal, NSW, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and ACT governments in 2012 to restore river health by recovering water principally from farmers, who had been allocated unsustainable volumes of water for irrigation.
Plibersek said the plan was expected to fall 750 gigalitres short of its 3200 gigalitre target – equivalent to 1.5 Sydney harbours – and blamed the former federal Coalition government for “nine years’ sabotage”, claiming that more than 80 per cent of water recovery was achieved under Labor governments and less than 20 per cent under the Coalition.
She is aiming to set a new deadline in coming weeks, warning that further potential environmental damage was imminent unless all the 3200 gigalitres was returned to the river system.
“The next terrible drought is knocking on the door. El Nino is coming back,” She said. “When the temperature gets hotter again, when the rain stops falling and the river stops flowing, we will seriously regret it if we don’t act now.”
NSW and Victorian governments face backlash in irrigation communities over reduced access to water entitlements and have failed to meet successive goals to boost river flows, including billions of dollars worth of infrastructure works to make rivers flow more efficiently, such as weir upgrades and channel lining, leaving a big hole in the overall water recovery target.
NSW Water Minister Rose Jackson said she wanted to make sure an overdue bucket of water worth 450 gigalitres to the environment was delivered through infrastructure rather than through buybacks from irrigators, which are cheaper and quicker but controversial among farmers.
Nevertheless, Jackson welcomed the deadline extension and said her government “supports the delivery of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan”.
The Victorian government was more circumspect. Water Minister Harriet Shing did not comment directly, but a government spokesperson welcomed the deadline extension and said Victoria was working to meet its water recovery obligations.
However, the spokesperson said Victoria remained committed to socio-economic criteria established by the Andrews and former NSW Coalition government in 2018, which rules out buybacks and vetoes schemes to recover water from farmers if there was a negative impact on the local economy.
Plibersek refused to rule out changes to the socio-economic criteria to drive water recovery, arguing that “not delivering the plan is the worst social and economic impact”.
Environment Victoria chief executive Jono La Nauze urged the federal government to push the Andrews government to relax their position on socio-economic criteria to drive rapid water recovery.
“Despite their spin, the Andrews government is now the biggest block to a healthy Murray-Darling,” La Nauze said. “If Daniel Andrews can’t be convinced to willingly support environmental flows then Anthony Albanese will need to override him.”
South Australian Water Minister Susan Close criticised the “absurdly complex socio-economic criteria” and called for the Albanese government to pass new legislation to enable it to impose buybacks for the 450 gigalitre target.
“We need to change the plan so that the Commonwealth is able to purchase water on the open market from willing sellers,” Close said.
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