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New chair appointed for Murray-Darling group

The newly appointed chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan landholder reference group has promised frank and fearless advice.

Deniliquin farmer and former Murray Irrigation board member Michael Hughes will chair the landholder reference group, which will lead community consultation on the NSW Government's Murray-Darling Basin Plan Constraints Management Strategy (CMS).

“I'm more than confident to be frank and forthright with what the community are demanding,” Hughes said.

“‘Fact and data’ is my favourite catch phrase, so I'm more than happy to give frank advice if it's based on fact and data.

“I won't say [the debate] has been driven by emotion … but we're going to back to basics, sticking with just the facts so that they're indisputable and it doesn't matter which side of the ledger you're coming from.”

NSW Minister for Primary Industries Lands and Water Niall Blair said Hughes was well placed to lead the consultation with local water users.

“As a landholder in the Yarrawonga to Wakool region – and someone who has had considerable involvement in river operations over the last five years as chairman of the WaterNSW Murray Lower Darling Customer Service Committee – Mr Hughes will bring a wide range of local knowledge to the role,” Blair said.

Hughes said his first priority would be to establish parameters.

“Develop a key set of principles that's endorsed by the community and then a process going forward so we've got full transparency and consultation,” he said.

About a dozen invited landholders attended the group's first meeting in Deniliquin last week, where attendees were keen to establish a baseline river height.

“First and foremost is to get an agreement from everybody involved – the operator, the environmental regulator and the community – on what an acceptable flow rate or river height is,” Hughes said.

“If that baseline needs to be exceeded, then it's got to be done with full consultation.”

On top of the agreed 2750GL sustainable diversion limit set out in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, there is potential for a further 450GL to be recovered for the environment by 2024 by removing operational and physical constraints in the river system.

The CMS was established to develop the feasibility of this in 2013.

It was the responsibility of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority until last year, when the CMS was handed over to the NSW Government which established the landholder reference group.

“It's a concept that's driven from the frustrations and concerns of many of the community groups along the floodplains,” Hughes said.

“There were some pretty basic questions that just weren't being answered – things like how high will the river be? For how long will it be that high?”

The government has extended the time frame for proposals on the CMS to mid-2016 which Hughes said the group would try to meet.

“I think unless we can get some consensus going forward then the timeline may only be a guide,” Hughes said.