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Plibersek has a golden opportunity to lead on Murray-Darling Basin Plan

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Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek expressed deep concern over the Coalition's mismanagement of the Murray-Darling Basin (Screenshot via YouTube)

After the Coalition sabotaged the Murray-Darling Basin for profit, the Labor Government has a chance to repair the damage done, writes Tyler Rotche.

WHILE RELEASING the State of the Environment Report last week, Australia’s new Water Minister, Tanya Plibersek, said she was gobsmacked at the dismal progress in the Murray-Darling Basin.

She also noted it will be “next to impossible” to deliver on parts of the $13 billion Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Now the Federal Government has the opportunity to start repairing the Coalition’s damaging legacy with the release of a progress report on a key Basin Plan target.

The Water for the Environment Special Account (WESA) report released this week funds some of the water that we must return to the river.

At the Basin Plan’s outset, it set a target of returning 3,200 billion litres to the environment. That’s about six times the size of Sydney Harbour, but less than half of what the river needs for a good chance of survival. For all its flaws, it still set in motion the ambitious goal of setting aside enough water to keep the river alive.

But each piece of the Plan has suffered from a punishing lobbying effort by powerful corporate interests. That 3,200 billion litre target was divided into different buckets. Some had convoluted mechanisms that allow nearly 20% of the target to be offset, with ridiculous proposals to re-engineer wetlands to use less water.

After nearly a decade of the Coalition’s negligence, less than 1% of a key 450 billion litre bucket is full. The WESA report looks at this missing water. 

The report’s main finding is straightforward: it is not possible to reach the 450 GL target through the current programs. Tanya Plibersek has said that filling this bucket is “next to impossible given where we are starting from and how far behind we are”. But why has it been so hard?

To understand this, it’s useful to explain the ways we can fill the bucket — returning water to rivers.

Governments could return water through compulsory acquisition, changing water rights and licences so less water can be taken. This option hasn’t been on the table in years.

Another option is to purchase water rights directly from willing sellers. This has been the most cost-effective means used so far. And irrigators have been eager to sell — every purchase tender has been oversubscribed. Most irrigators sold only some of their water, continuing to farm, funding other parts of their business and returning much-needed water to the river.

But why has less than 1% of this Basin Plan target been achieved? To put it simply, it's because the previous Government ruled out every method to fill the bucket — except infrastructure upgrades.

This is the final way to find water toward the target: by modernising irrigation infrastructure through handouts that are anywhere from three to 25 times more expensive than open-tender purchases. These projects were favoured by corporate irrigators and their lobbyists — no doubt because corporate agribusinesses have been 21 times more likely to receive the funding than family farms. 

With this in mind, the WESA report’s conclusion isn’t surprising. It's next to impossible to meet Basin Plan targets if we rely on the methods that have failed us over the past decade. But it’s achievable if we spend smarter and use methods irrigators have taken advantage of — purchasing water at fair rates from willing sellers.

The new Government needs to chart a different course if we are going to save the Murray-Darling.

The Water Minister has an opportunity here. Water storages are brimming across the Basin, but that water isn’t flowing into the wetlands, anabranches, billabongs and backwaters. There is a massive problem with water management and distribution. And while the biggest corporate irrigators keep reaping the benefits, the rivers will continue to decline in health.

It’s time for the newly elected Labor Government to step up, utilising some of the same tools that have worked before. Buying water from willing sellers is a win-win both for irrigators living on the river and for the places we love that will get a bit more water, helping all the birds, fish and turtles that depend on it.

We have spent years gobsmacked at the abysmal state of the Basin — now Tanya Plibersek has a chance to give our rivers what they need to survive: ambition and water.

Tyler Rotche is a Healthy Rivers campaigner for Environment Victoria.

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