Neil Andrew and Bob Baldwin with SRI chair John Bradford.CONJECTURE is mounting in farming communities over whether the Murray-Darling Basin Plan can deliver its promised environmental water flows efficiently, without causing impacts from excessive flooding.

Stakeholders raised grievances about that vital aspect of the Basin Plan’s implementation with new Parliamentary Secretary to the Environment Minister Bob Baldwin in a series of introductory meetings held this week in key Basin States.

Mr Baldwin was joined on the four-day tour by Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) chair and former South Australian Liberal MP Neil Andrew, who started his new appointment on February 1.

On Monday, the delegation flew from Canberra over the Snowy Mountain water catchment scheme and Dartmouth Dam into Shepparton, Victoria, for engagements with irrigators and industry stakeholders, including on-farm talks.

The following day at Deniliquin, NSW, they toured various water delivery and irrigation projects where Mr Baldwin announced $100 million funding for private irrigation operators.

Participants in the Deniliquin leg included officials from the National Irrigators Council, NSW Irrigators Council, Department of Environment, MDBA, Murray Irrigation Limited, Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH) and Southern Riverina Irrigators.

On Wednesday, the delegation met with farmers near Mildura in Victoria to check out more water efficiency projects before moving onto South Australia the following day to tour the Lower Lakes region.

Extra SDLs an issueThe Basin Plan was signed into law in late 2012 underpinned by a basic target of 2750 gigalitres in Sustainable Diversion Limits (SDLs) – although not signed by the NSW and Queensland governments until February 2014.

A last minute political manoeuvre by the former federal Labor government to appease their SA counterparts in 2012 amended the Water Act to inject an additional 450GL in SDLs, accompanied by a $1.75 billion federal government grant.

The added SDLs will be achieved by removing constraints in the river system through a $200 million allocation, with the remaining $1.55b going to water efficiency projects, most likely on-farm, to recover environmental water.

In his speech at the National Press Club in Canberra, after signing the Basin Plan into law, then Water Minister Tony Burke said the final 450GL – held water by the CEWH – would be gained by removing the constraints with no “downside” in terms of the Basin Plan’s social and economic outcomes.

But he said the 450GL would have “a massive, massive upside for the environmental outcomes”.

Mr Burke said the 2750GL met 11 of the 18 different river flow targets within the Murray – but removing the constraints to deliver that 450GL would see 17 out of 18 flow targets reached.

“Those constraints are things like river rules that prevent you from releasing dam water beyond certain levels, channels where if you try to put more water than the capacity of a channel allows, instead of the water going down the system it just goes out,” he said.

However, more than two years later, the Constraints Management Strategy (CMS) which underpins the 450GL delivery program remains a divisive issue angst amongst Basin stakeholders.

Flooding concern for farmersA key dilemma is how the $200m will be spent to ensure the Plan achieves its stated goals, without hurting or disrupting farm operations through excessive flooding that could also strand or kill livestock or deny feeding or damage private property, including crops.

It’s understood the ministerial council of State and federal water ministers doesn’t need to formally sign off on the CMS by mid-2016 – but the various governments must reach agreement one way or another, by that date, on the Authority’s final recommendations.

While there’s a general acceptance the $200m is insufficient, efforts are still being made to prioritise projects to achieve the best result for efficient delivery of SDLs.

MDBA officials are already engaged in ongoing consultations with community groups to finalise the CMS to deliver the 450GL without causing negative third party impacts.

Another potential hot spot for the MDBA to resolve with stakeholders is whether a flow of 80,000 megalitres a day in environmental watering requirements for the SA River Murray, can be achieved in the Basin Plan.

During the Deniliquin leg of the tour, MDBA river management executive director David Dreverman was quizzed by stakeholders about the Authority’s modelling on the additional water flows, but his responses failed to remove growing doubts.

Constrained by constraintsRicegrowers’ Association of Australia (RGA) president and chair of the National Farmers’ Federation water taskforce, Les Gordon accompanied Mr Baldwin’s delegation on Tuesday around Deniliquin.

Mr Gordon said the $200m allocated to the CMS was significantly short of the amount required, which government and MDBA officials were made aware of.

He said when considering the range of works needed to remove various constraints, including building bridges and other easements, in particular on private land throughout the system, the amount needed was “infinitely” more than $200m.

“A lot of water needs to come through a lot of little streams in this area and a lot of infrastructure and access is likely to be impacted,” he said.

Overall, Mr Gordon said the Basin Plan remained a “fairly divisive” issue amongst rural communities.

“A lot of people would still like to see it go away and a lot of people accept that it’s probably not going to go away,” he said.

Mr Gordon said those who accepted the Basin Plan was here to stay wanted it implemented in a cohesive way that protected their private assets and safeguarded the social and economic base of communities, like public infrastructure.

“These people are saying, ‘If you’re going to do this those assets need to be protected and we need to put some more robust processes in place to do that’,” he said.

“Every drop of water that goes out of productive agriculture into the environment will diminish returns to the broader community – there’s no doubt about that.

“But there’s a fairly widely held view now that you have a pool of water and it’s probably time to see if we can use it more effectively than we have in the past, and see how you do that before taking too much more away from farmers.”

A broad spectrum of issuesMr Baldwin said varying views and concerns did exist about the Basin Plan’s delivery, throughout the river system which, “always escalated in dry times”.

He said on Monday in Shepparton, stakeholders spoke about excessive water flows coming down the river and “perhaps flooding across the levy banks”.

“There is a broad spectrum of issues and they are different no matter if you’re in the north, or in the south or in the west,” he said.

“I’m listening to all those people; that’s why we’re embarking on a three-phase tour over a couple of months.

“This week we’re going down the Murray, the next trip will be down the Murrumbidgee and the next trip will be down the Darling.

“I intend to connect and engage with people out there on the ground; I’m that kind of guy. It’s a difficult area to work in because everyone feels that everyone else is against them.

“(But) if I had my way, I’d learn to do a rain dance and make it work and deliver rain on time.”

Liberal MP Sussan Ley, Farrer, said she believed the CMS had some inbuilt safeguards that would work, in terms delivering additional water levels, without creating adverse impacts on farm land and the community.

But she said stakeholders needed to be convinced the environmental watering plan would achieve its balanced objectives, with a win-win outcome for farmers and the environment “because the Basin Plan was premised on that working”.

Ms Ley said there would always be arguments over models for environmental water flows in the Basin Plan “and we accept that” but it was time to move on.

“There were models being talked about when I first represented this area in 2001,” she said.

“I think the time for modelling has past. I think the time for inquiries and reviews has past – that has been done to death.

“The implementation phase is where we’re up to now which is the most important.

“It’s where all of the theory and conversation hits the ground, so that just has to work.”

Forward commitmentMr Baldwin said, “everyone always claims they’re never listened to unless they get it their way”.

“There’s a Plan that’s been agreed to under the Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA),” he said.

“That plan was formulated after a long period of consultation – it was swapped and changed on the way through – now is the time to deliver the Plan.”

But Mr Baldwin said, if irrigation groups or other stakeholders objected to key aspects of the Basin Plan, he was listening and they needed to point to specific examples of where it’s not working, “not just rhetoric”.

“Give me specifics we can act on, but generalisations don’t deliver outcomes,” he said.

“Show me where the error is and at least I can then review it.

“I might not agree with you but at least I can review it (but) ‘it’s not working’ just doesn’t cut the mustard.”

Mr Baldwin also dismissed concerns a change of government at the March NSW election and the outcome of the Queensland election could see a scenario where a federal Coalition government faced potentially four State Labor governments.

He said Liberal and Labor State governments they signed up to the IGA in a forward commitment.

“If they decide they want to chop and change, it’ll all fall over, we’ll pull our money back (and) money will be resumed by our treasury and finance, so it actually rests with State governments to actually work with us,” he said.

“We are the funder and the facilitator they are the enablers that will work on the ground – it’s up to State governments to deliver their side of the bargain.”

A bridge too farOn Tuesday, Mr Baldwin and Mr Andrew were taken to the Sandy Creek Bridge in the Wakool Shire, west of Deniliquin.

They were told the old wooden bridge – one of about 160 similar structures dotted on public and private property throughout the Shire – was considered a prime example of a constraint that must be considered for an upgrade in the CMS.

Currently, it has a 10 tonne weight limit, considered insufficient when the water level is raised or the river flooded to achieve environmental water flows, preventing local farmers or truck operators being able to access a lower-level easement nearby.

But if the bridge was upgraded and able to carry heavy farm machinery and other loads, local farmers could carry on business operations without undue or lengthy disruptions.

Roger Knight – a member of the Koondrook Perricoota Alliance local reference group – met with Mr Baldwin’s delegation and said it was “imperative” the bridge be replaced with a steel or concrete structure, whichever meets specified building requirements, to maintain regular landholder access, when such watering events are underway.

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