Time to clear basin plan hurdles

May 29, 2018

The removal of a further 450 Gl from the basin would clearly hurt our economy and community.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan issue is reaching another one of its crisis points.

Here is a short recap for those who have lost track, or for those who are tiring of the issue as it is a complex, confusing mess (most of us).

The plan has been to return 2750Gl of irrigation water licence across the basin to the Commonwealth environmental water holder. This water can then be used for environmental flows to improve the health of the river systems. A large proportion of this water has come from the Goulburn Murray Irrigation District. As Victorian governments have had a more responsible approach to issuing and regulating water licences, the product from here is more reliable and secure.

Part of the plan allowed for up to 650Gl of ‘‘offsets’’ — works to improve the efficient use of environmental water that would reduce the overall target. The states have found 605Gl worth of offsets, and after a failed attempt by the Greens to block this part of the plan in the Senate, they will go ahead. So, the target new target is 2145Gl.

We are almost there in terms of recovering that amount. The environment has its water, there is less in the pool for irrigators to use, and we are seeing river health improving as the adaptive management of the system continues.

All good? Not quite.

Before the plan was signed into law in 2012, a last-minute deal was done with the South Australian Government for an extra 450Gl to be recovered, providing it met the test of ‘‘socio-economic neutrality’’. The dictionary definition of socio-economic is relating to social and economic factors. The definition of society is the aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community. So, anyone with a reasonable command of the English language would say that the term ‘‘socio economic neutrality’’ means no negative impact on the economy or the community.

However, the authors of the plan have attempted to define socio-economic impact of water removal from a region as relating only to the water licence holder. If the farmer is happy to sell or give up the water and is not adversely impacted, according to some of the wording, there is no negative socio-economic impact.

This is ridiculous. It is an attempt to completely redefine a well-understood term in common use. It is like showing a picture of an elephant and then setting out a number of qualifications and definitions as to why it is really a zebra.

The removal of a further 450Gl from the basin would clearly hurt our economy and community. Production would decline, jobs would be lost and the dairy industry would face extreme hardship. Not to mention what pushing that amount of water through the Goulburn river might do to its health. The federal and state water ministers are meeting in Canberra on June 8, and this socio-economic test must be clearly defined, and, if necessary, amended, to reflect the reality of the risk to basin communities.

Check our campaign on social media #fairflow to find out more and add your support.

Sam Birrell is the Committee for Greater Shepparton’s chief executive.

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