Confusion reigns over 450 Gl

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There is significant confusion in the public debate over progress of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Members of parliament and media commentators have been confusing the lack of progress over the delivery of 450 Gl of up-water for the Murray-Darling Basin with water recovery under the whole Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Numerous MPs have complained that, under the plan, only a few gigalitres have been recovered, whereas the Murray-Darling Basin Authority says that 2106 Gl has been recovered over the 10 years of the plan.

The commentary is also missing the caveat attached to the recovery of the extra 450 Gl — namely, that it can only be provided if there is no socio-economic damage caused to basin communities.

This caveat was agreed to, by all the states, when the 450 Gl was put in place.

South Australian Premier Peter Malinauskas, when asked about the 450 Gl and the caveat that it could only be delivered if there was no negative socio-economic impact, described the caveat as “sabotage”.

Asked by the ABC why upstream communities should give up water when Adelaide should be turning on its desalination plant, Mr Malinauskas said the desal plant was only a back-up for dry conditions and producing the water was highly expensive.

He said the 450 Gl was for environmental flows and “separate from drinking water”.

Federal Member for Nicholls Sam Birrell asked Federal Water Minister Tanya Plibersek whether her government would honour the caveat.

She did not respond to this specific question.

Meanwhile, the NSW Irrigators’ Council has calculated that recovering an additional 450 Gl would be the equivalent of removing another 19 per cent of the higher-reliability water remaining in the consumptive pool for growing food and fibre across the southern Murray-Darling Basin.

“The new Federal Water Minister Tanya Plibersek has already acknowledged that delivering the extra 450 Gl promised to South Australia will be difficult,” NSW Irrigators’ Council chief executive officer Claire Miller said.

“Our analysis demonstrates the substantial socio-economic and water market impacts of recovering even more water from what’s left to grow food and fibre.

“It also shows the 450’s intended outcomes in the Lower Lakes and Coorong are already being met, even in the severe 2019 drought, with the 2100 Gl already recovered under the basin plan.

“It highlights the need to change course on the basin plan, away from the focus on simplistic volumes of recovery as the only measure of success, towards whether the plan is delivering what was intended, that is, more robust ecosystem resilience and sustainable diversion limits.”

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan has already shifted more than 2100 Gl of water out of irrigated agriculture — that’s more than four Sydney Harbours.

“This 2100 Gl is in addition to the annual average 18,600 Gl that was not diverted or intercepted under the plan’s 2009 baseline,” Ms Miller said.

“This water recovery has effectively dropped irrigation, town and industry’s share of total pre-plan inflows from 35 per cent to 28 per cent.

“We are advocating for the 450 Gl funds to be reinvested into complementary measures, to directly address environmental challenges such as feral species and habitat loss, and improve biodiversity and conservation outcomes.

“This can happen alongside a healthy agricultural sector. In fact, irrigation infrastructure operators, irrigation industries and landholders are already working with the state and federal environmental water holders to get more environmental water where it needs to go.”