Former Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder slams Murray-Darling Basin Plan deal

THE environment got a “bad deal” when Murray-Darling Basin ministers agreed on new criteria for further water recovery, the previous Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder says.

David Papps, who retired from his post in charge of the Federal Government’s environmental water portfolio earlier this year, said the criteria would make it near impossible for the Commonwealth to find an extra 450 gigalitres for the environment that had been agreed to when the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was signed in 2012.

The Victorian and NSW governments lobbied for the new criteria, which require proponents of water saving projects to prove they won’t reduce the overall productive capacity of an irrigation area, directly increase the price of water or cause rural job losses.

However, Mr Papps said the criteria were “vague” and appeared “designed to minimise the amount of additional environmental water” able to be recovered.

He said the basin plan had been “white anted by the states that caused the problem in the first instance”.

“If (NSW Regional Water Minister) Niall Blair reckons it’s a good thing, then it’s going to be bad for the environment and that’s also the case if (Victorian Water Minister) Lisa Neville agrees with him,” Mr Papps said.

Friday’s outcome was hailed as a milestone by all basin water ministers, including South Australian David Speirs, who agreed to the criteria in exchange for funding for environmental projects in the Coorong and an investigation into whether Adelaide’s desalination plant could be used to reduce the state’s reliance on Murray River water.

The agreement came after the federal Department of Agriculture and Water Resources consulted communities across the basin, including at two sessions in Mildura, where it heard feedback about water recovery so far.

Consultancy firm Seftons found “most participants saw limited opportunities from water efficiency programs if the 450GL savings is a pre-requisite” and that increased water entitlement prices had “further diminished” interest in it.

The Victorian Farmers Federation said common sense had prevailed at the ministerial meeting and was confident the new criteria would protect rural communities from further socio-economic pain.

The basin plan requires the 450GL to be recovered by 2024, with neutral socioeconomic effects on rural communities, but 62GL must be found by the end of June 2019.

“I’d be surprised if they found much more than that under these criteria and I think that’s a bad outcome,” Mr Papps said.

“Despite what people say about focus on outcomes, not volumes, there is a direct relationship between outcomes and volumes.”

Mr Papps said basin governments created a “massive reinterpretation” of the original requirement for socio-economic neutrality of water recovery.

He said South Australia’s support for the deal was the “absolute definition of a turkey voting for Christmas”.

“It will take a long time (to see the outcome) because the recovery process takes a long time but I think there’ll be some immediate impacts, in South Australia in particular,” he said.

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