Wed. Apr 17th, 2024

The Federal Government’s bullish return to the policy approach of water buybacks on the Murray Darling has failed to deliver the expected gigalitres, and been met with an alternative approach by the NSW Government.

This week federal Minister for the Environment and Water, Tanya Plibersek, was claiming the return of water buybacks to be a success, with 26.25 GL/y of water returned from the the Lachlan, Namoi and NSW Murray catchments via a tender process.

“I’ve been clear that water purchasing is just one tool in the box to recover water, and this tender has shown it can be effective,” Ms Plibersek said.

“Through these willing sellers we will return water that is desperately needed to restore our rivers and support the plants, animals and communities that rely on it.”

Despite the positive rhetoric, the policy has actually failed to reach its target by a staggering 40 per cent. The policy measure aimed to reclaim 44.3 GL/y from the six targeted catchments in Queensland and New South Wales, a figure Ms Plibersek was confident in March last year they would reach. While contractual processes are still underway, the government is forecasting an estimated total cost of $205 million for the accepted tenders.

The NSW Government has moved against the will of their federal counterparts, releasing an ‘Alternatives to Buybacks Plan‘ to minimise the exposure of regional communities to water buybacks. The plan is designed to maximise water recovery and environmental outcomes through infrastructure, rule changes and other non-purchase projects.

National Farmers Federation President David Jochinke welcomed the alternative plan from NSW.

“It is good to see NSW continue to stand up for regional communities and push back on the Federal Minister’s pursuit of community-destroying buybacks.” 

“The success of this plan will depend entirely on whether Minister Plibersek is willing to engage collaboratively with her state counterparts to deliver win-win outcomes for the environment and communities,” Mr Jochinke said.  

“So far this type of flexibility and collaboration has been in short supply, with the Minister giving communities the cold shoulder at every turn.” 

NSW Irrigators Council CEO Claire Miller said the NSW Plan also demonstrates how difficult further water recovery will be in practice, even when socioeconomic impacts are ignored.

“The fact is that all the low and medium hanging fruit for water savings projects has already been well and truly picked under successive programs including The Living Murray, Water for Rivers, and the Basin Plan from 2008.”

“And we can see that buybacks are not proving the quick, cheap and easy option the federal minister was hoping, with shortfalls in the Bridging the Gap program despite paying well over market rates.”

 NSW Shadow Water Minister Steph Cooke said while she welcomes the long-overdue release of the Government’s ‘Alternatives to Buybacks Plan’, the document is light on detail, and raises serious questions about the Water Minister’s lack of progress on vital water saving projects.

“For months we’ve been told that the Government is on the case, but as I feared, the plan released today confirms that very little has been done to either progress water saving projects, or identify new ones.

“In fact we seem to be going backwards, with projects like the redevelopment of the Wilcannia Weir – part of the Better Baaka program – being significantly scaled back, without proper stakeholder consultation.

“Time is running out; if we’re going to meet the 2026 deadline set out in the re-written Murray Darling Basin Plan to deliver the necessary water saving projects, we need to see greater detail around project plans, more transparency around the modelling used to calculate water savings, and increased community consultation.

“The Water Minister, together with the Premier, must also look at ways to fast-track the approvals process for water saving projects, potentially designating them as ‘state significant’ if they are truly serious about getting them over the line on time.”

“The Premier and Water Minister have repeatedly said they’re against water buybacks, but as the plan itself states, it ‘does not eliminate the prospect of water buybacks in NSW’.

“This to me reads as though the Government is already resigned to resorting to buybacks,” she said.

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