The federal government has committed not to buy any more water from farmers, as an independent review finds a key part of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan will not be delivered on time.
Water Minister Keith Pitt has also promised a $38 million shakeup of policing water rules across the basin, committing to establishing a new inspector-general of water compliance office.
The new statutory office will combine existing staff from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, and the Interim Inspector-General of Murray Darling Basin office, established in 2019.
Mr Pitt has told the ABC he would launch an “action plan” to “refresh [the government’s] commitment to the future of communities in the Murray-Darling Basin” on Friday.
It is expected to include more than $170 million for projects in regional communities throughout the basin.
No more buybacks
For the first time since his appointment as Water Minister earlier in 2020, Mr Pitt has ruled out the prospect of buying water entitlements from farmers to meet water-saving targets set by the basin plan.
“This is the position of the Commonwealth government, I am very clearly ruling out additional water buybacks from farmers, that is the position of the Commonwealth, that’s the position of me as minister, that’s the position of the Coalition government,” Mr Pitt told the ABC.
Mr Pitt said the decision to rule out farm buybacks was not in contradiction of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and would not be legislated.
“We will be focused on other options in terms of water recovery, we’ll be focused on practical outcomes in terms of river health,” he said.
“We are committed to the plan.”
About two-thirds of water recovered for the environment under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan has been purchased from irrigators, under “buybacks”, with the majority of deals taking place between 2007 and 2014.
In 2015, the Federal Parliament legislated a buyback cap to ensure no more than 1500 gigalitres of water savings could be obtained through buybacks from irrigators and there has not been a government buyback since 2017-18.
As of this week, 1230 gigalitres have been recovered from farmers through buybacks, 700 gigalitres has been recovered from infrastructure projects and 255 gigalitres from on-farm upgrades.
An interim study of the socio-economic impacts of the Basin Plan earlier this year reported a growing sense of hopelessness within communities across the Murray-Darling Basin.
The final report, chaired by Robbie Sefton, was handed to the government in April and is expected to be released publicly by Mr Pitt on Friday.
Basin plan running late
Mr Pitt is also expected to release the Water for the Environment Special Account Review, which was due to the government in early 2020, under the Water Act.
He has told the ABC that the independent review, chaired by Sally Farrier, has found “we will not recover 450 gigalitres by 30 June 2024”.
“The WESA review very clearly states that we are behind, that’s obvious to all those involved in the Basin,” Mr Pitt said.
“We are committed to working with the states to squeeze more water efficiencies out of existing projects,” he said.
Earlier this year, MDBA chief executive Philip Glyde warned governments were at significant risk of not meeting the Murray-Darling Basin Plan’s June 2024 deadline.
“We really think governments need to focus now, and really redouble their efforts to make sure that we can get these projects delivered in time because, if we don’t, the legislation as it stands requires further water to be recovered from the farm sector and that has significant impacts on that sector and the communities,” Mr Glyde said at the time.
While Mr Pitt’s buyback pledge will not be legislated, he said the proposed inspector-general water compliance authority would require parliamentary approval.
“The MDBA has done a very good job in a difficult policy area over a long period of time but we want to ensure they’re not marking their own homework and this is about transparency,” Mr Pitt said.
Last year, the Productivity Commission recommended the MDBA be split in two to avoid conflicts between implementing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and ensuring compliance.
Mr Pitt did not have a timeline for implementing the new office and said it was not clear how many staff would be expected to relocate from the MDBA to the new authority, or if positions would be lost.
Mr Pitt also declined to say if Interim Inspector-General for the Murray Darling Basin and former AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty would head up the new office.
“We’re working our way through those issues, I’ve certainly had a discussion with Mick Keelty … We’ll have more to say about who will lead the organisation at a later time,” Mr Pitt said.
Mr Keelty was appointed to that new statutory position in August last year and in February released a report to Government that said the amount of water flowing through the Basin over the past 20 years had halved.