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Murray-Darling Basin Plan hits roadblock

The Murray-Darling Basin is subject to political friction following the announcement that Plan amendments affecting the northern part of the Basin have been disallowed by the Australian Parliament.

The Senate voted for the Basin Plan to go on unchanged, instead of allowing an increase in water available to farms in the Basin's northern region. The proposed changes estimated a reduced volume of water released back to the environment by 70GL in southern Queensland and northern NSW.

As a result, the NSW water minister Niall Blair has declared that his state "will now start the process of withdrawing… from the plan", while Victorian water minister Lisa Neville stated that "the plan is over" even though Victoria is not part of the Northern Basin.

The Senate vote, however, is in line with what SA wants: 450GL of water back into the environment, in addition to tackling allegations of water corruption. SA's water minister Ian Hunter has urged the Federal Government to be tougher on upstream states.

"Victoria and NSW are trying to ... get a better deal for themselves and cut the South Australian component right out and we just won't stand for it," Hunter said.

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) chief executive Phillip Glyde said he is disappointed that the Australian Parliament has voted against the amendment and that the authority stands by the Northern Basin review process.

"I urge all parties to continue to work together in a spirit of consensus and cooperation to deliver the Basin Plan; this remains our nation's best pathway for securing the environmental future of this vital shared resource and the communities that depend on it," Glyde said.

"In undertaking the Northern Basin Review, the MDBA was well aware of concerns about compliance, high levels of unregulated take and the need for effective protection of environmental water in the Northern Basin.

"These issues are not signs of problems with the Basin Plan; on the contrary, they further underline the need for the Basin Plan. The Basin Plan is the solution to these issues, but we must remember we are only part way into the implementation of this visionary and long-term policy."

Australian Water Association Chief Executive Jonathan McKeown said the water industry remains hopeful that the Eastern states will resume meaningful negotiations to preserve and maintain the Basin Plan after the South Australian election has been held.

"Many see the change of tack from the ALP to combine with the Greens and the NXP to block the proposed reforms in the Northern Basin by 32 votes to 30 as more connected to elevating the political heat on the Basin Plan during the SA election.

“There has never been a greater need to ensure the Basin Plan is fairly implemented and transparently enforced to balance the economic, social, and environmental objectives of the Plan.

“The assessment of these competing demands under the Basin Plan need some flexibility to accommodate changing circumstances within the Basin."

The Federal Water Minister David Littleproud is in the midst of damage control, working out the dispute between his state counterparts.

Glyde said work is already underway to address these issues through both a 'toolkit' of measures agreed between Queensland, NSW and the Commonwealth, and by action on compliance following the MDBA's Basin-wide compliance review that was agreed by all Basin Ministers.

"I assure you that, despite the amendments being disallowed, all these contributions have not been wasted," he said.

"I know that many communities in the Basin will be very concerned about the possibility of further water recovery, and the uncertainty brought about by disallowance of the amendments.

"I would like to assure these communities that the need to balance social, economic and environmental outcomes is at the heart of the Basin Plan and remains paramount in its implementation.

"I sincerely hope that all parties will continue to work together and stay the course with implementation of the Basin Plan," he added.

Highlighting concerns for the Murray-Darling Basin’s health, 12 leading Australian experts also recently struck out against current management practices by signing the Murray-Darling Declaration.

Learn more about the Murray-Darling Declaration signatories here.