Basin plan questions remain six years on

By Alana Christensen

More than 2192 days and $8billion, plus countless meetings and hours of debate — yet the questions about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan continue.

The plan may have celebrated its sixth birthday last Thursday, but irrigators say the true consequences are only starting to come to the surface.

In a year that has included a scathing assessment by the Productivity Commission, a South Australian royal commission into the basin plan, discontinuance motions brought before the Senate and an ongoing discussion regarding the neutrality test for the 450Gl of ‘up-water’, the ongoing drought is adding to the equation.

Another dry summer only casts further doubts on the plan, according to Speak Up Campaign chair Shelley Scoullar.

‘‘This year is the first real year we’ve had some low rainfalls and it really shows the basin plan’s flaws ... The unintended consequences have really been playing out,’’ Mrs Scoullar said.

‘‘For those in NSW Murray it’s a big shock to be sitting on zero allocation with the amount of water in the dams at the moment and watching it go past, it just highlights the flaws in the plan that weren’t well thought out.’’

Mrs Scoullar said she had been told it could take up to eight years to see the full impacts of water recovery in communities.

‘‘We’re trying to cram this major reform into such a short amount of time and we’re whacking one generation with it.’’

While acknowledging the current drought was making things tough, Murray-Darling Basin Authority chair Neil Andrew labelled the plan a ‘‘visionary policy’’, saying dry times affect the health of the river system as well.

During the past decade, more than 8000Gl of environmental water has been used to water more than 120 sites along about 20000km of rivers.

‘‘It is not easy to be pioneers in any field, and water reform is no exception. It is not an exact science and there are no definitive answers,’’ Mr Andrew said.

Yet Tallygaroopna dairy farmer Natalie Akers said she held a number of concerns, mainly that the Federal Government and MDBA would continue to ‘‘ignore’’ the socio-economic effects of taking more water out of production, all while not acknowledging river constraints and not quantifying the environmental benefits of water recovery.

Although admitting the basin plan had reaped some benefits — mainly the modernisation of the Goulburn Murray Irrigation District — Ms Akers said even that had been marred by trouble.

‘‘This has been undermined by untargeted water purchases and the continuing zealotry to pursue more water for the environment at any cost,’’ she said.

‘‘(What we need is) government investment in irrigation farms that doesn’t require farmers to give up water entitlements to make up for the economic damage the basin plan has already inflicted.’’