Murray-Darling Basin plan: Victoria will struggle to meet water delivery obligations by deadline

by Anne Davies
Water minister says state will only consider additional 450GL efficiency projects if they do not negatively affect farmers or towns

Victoria will struggle to meet its obligations under the $13bn Murray-Darling Basin plan by the legislated deadline, and could join New South Wales in pushing for concessions when ministers meet in October.

Victoria’s water minister, Harriet Shing, said 2024 was “not realistic” for all aspects of the plan.

“Victoria has delivered all our basin plan obligations to date and we’re working hard on our sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism projects, with most expected to be completed by 2024,” Shing said.

“However, multiple independent reviews including by the productivity commission, have told us that 2024 is not a realistic deadline for all aspects of the basin plan. I look forward to discussing this with the commonwealth and other states at the upcoming ministerial council meeting.”

The Guardian reported on Thursday that NSW is planning to seek exemptions or changes to its commitments under the plan to deliver the equivalent of 605GL to the river system by way of projects that create more efficient use of water. The NSW government said it cannot meet the 2024 deadline.

These projects are known as the sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism (SDLAM) projects and were agreed to by state governments as a quid pro quo for farmers continuing to use the equivalent amount of water in agriculture.

NSW had planned to change the configuration of Menindee lakes to make them deeper and reduce evaporation, which it said would deliver an additional 106GL – the equivalent of 45,000 Olympic swimming pools – to the Murray-Darling system.

But NSW dumped the project before it even started after doubts about its efficacy, community objections and the fact it would have flooded one of the Baaka people’s most sacred sites.

Other NSW projects are either still at the conceptual stage or way behind schedule.

The state’s water minister, Kevin Anderson, has said he will seek to renegotiate NSW’s obligations and has signalled that he regards volumetric targets for water savings as unreasonable.

NSW has suggested projects like building fish ladders to help the movement of native fish upstream when water is low should be taken into account, even though they do not deliver more water to the rivers.

Victoria is struggling to meet some of its commitments in different areas.

Many of Victoria’s projects under the final stages of the plan involve removing constraints that prevent better environmental outcomes.

In addition, Victoria was expected to deliver most of a separate tranche of water, known as the 450GL efficiency projects, which were mainly to occur on-farm.

This included projects like lining irrigation canals to stop seepage.

But only 2.6GL of this target has so far been delivered.

“We have always had a very strong stance on the importance of positive or neutral socio-economic impacts, and we will only consider additional water recovery towards the 450GL where there are no negative socio-economic impacts, and without buybacks,” Shing said.

This means projects will only go ahead if it can be demonstrated they do not hurt farmers and farming towns.

Since becoming federal water minister in May, after nearly a decade of the water portfolio being controlled by National party ministers, Labor’s Tanya Plibersek has become increasingly concerned about the lack of progress under the plan.

Last month she said she was “gobsmacked” over the lack of progress.

Earlier this week she issued a warning to NSW saying: “The NSW government has had nearly 10 years to deliver on the Murray-Darling basin plan and the commitments it signed up for.”

NSW is also running late on catchment-by-catchment water resource plans, which set out detailed rules on water sharing. They were supposed to be completed by 2019, but only seven of NSW’s 20 plans have been submitted to the commonwealth, and only one has been accredited – that occurred on Wednesday.

Last month, the Murray Darling Basin Authority issued a report card on the progress of the plan which has just 20 months to run. A further assessment will be given to ministers at the October meeting.

On the SDLAM projects, the authority said the agreed works acted as a package and while smaller local projects were progressing, “substantial work remains to deliver the system-scale projects”.

On the efficiency measures (to deliver the 450GL) it said “only 2 GL of the additional 450 GL has been recovered, with a further 22.1 GL contracted for delivery.”