The 450GL program was designed to recover water from irrigation in the southern connected system, that is the Murray Darling catchment in NSW and Victoria, to boost downstream flows into South Australia.
Ms Pavey’s hardline position sparked an angry reaction from South Australian Water Minister David Speirs, who warned the efficiency program was one side of a double-edged deal and reneging on it would leave irrigators and towns worse off.
“You can’t pick and choose which parts of the plan you want to deliver, and if NSW doesn’t begin efficiency projects the federal government will have no choice but to enforce buybacks,” Mr Speirs said.
The basin plan is an historic agreement on shared water management, and its environmental reforms require support from state and federal governments to proceed.
That means it’s crucial for NSW and Victoria to get South Australia’s approval for another element of the basin plan which was set to reduce the volume of buybacks to come from irrigators known as the Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjust Mechanism, or ‘downwater’ projects.
Downwater projects would alleviate the impact of water recovery on farmers and towns currently battling severe drought and sky-high water prices. It would see the Commonwealth fund states to improve in-stream infrastructure so water flows more efficiently.
The maximum reduction to buybacks through downwater projects is capped at 605GL.
But as Mr Speirs pointed out, NSW and Victoria need South Australia’s signature on the downwater deal. And they won’t get it without stumping up to the 450GL efficiency program.
Mr Spiers said direct buybacks “increased pain on the very people that [NSW] are supposed to be supporting”.
“Buybacks are a blunt instrument that take water directly from farmers and rips the guts out of regional communities,” he said.
While the efficiency program is restricted to swapping funding to irrigators for water, downwater recovery could come from direct buybacks, which are a straight swap of Commonwealth money for water rights, with no on-farm funding to help maintain farm output and buffering of local economies which depend on irrigated agriculture.
Murray Darling interim Inspector General Mick Keelty said ministerial “spin” on council meeting outcomes had heightened expectations in communities and led to confusion.
“I’ve examined the media statements and it’s hard to believe all the people attended the same meeting,” Mr Keelty said.
“It’s this liberal interpretation and spin that is creating frustration among irrigators and farmers.”
Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville and Ms Pavey secured agreement at the ministerial council to review management plans for moving the increased volumes of water down the river, which will come with environmental recovery, without damaging flooding.
Ms Pavey said on Wednesday there was no point recovering 450GL through the efficiency program if the river system couldn’t transport it safely downstream.
“Our communities have made it clear they will not bullied by threats of buybacks,” she said.
Last year former NSW Water Minister Niall Blair cut a deal with South Australia and other states that set new, stricter rules for the efficiency program that banned water recovery unless the seller could show it would boost the local economy.
Mike is the climate and energy correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.