In last week’s budget, the Morrison government set aside nearly $270 million for the Murray-Darling Communities Investment Package. It’s meant to improve transparency and accountability, but they’ve hurt our chances for restoring our biggest river system to health because they’re banking on the smallest bucket of water savings.
The Howard government started the Basin Plan process on a simple understanding – we take too much water from our rivers and need to take less. Although the best science suggested a much higher target was needed, the Basin Plan sets the goal of 3200 billion litres returned to our rivers.
There are four ways of recovering this water – and some can deliver far more water towards the target. Our governments can buy back water from willing irrigators, subsidise on-farm water efficiency projects, subsidise off-farm water efficiency and develop ‘offset projects’ that aim to keep wetlands alive with less water.
The problem is, when Federal Water Minister Keith Pitt released the Investment Package, he said it would involve a change in approach, “putting an end to water buybacks” and “shifting the focus of the water efficiency programs to off-farm projects”.
Essentially, the Minister is taking two options off the table – buying back water and on-farm projects. But we still have a target of recovering 3200 billion litres by 2024, so how much can the other two buckets deliver?
Unfortunately, off-farm projects have the smallest potential. The most recent report from Minister Pitt’s Department of Agriculture shows that only 13 percent of Basin water targets can be met this way. Offset projects, the final and most scientifically dubious option, have already reached their limit.
So the federal government is left with an impossible task. They’ve promised to keep commitments to the Basin Plan, and they’ve also promised to stick to methods of water recovery that can’t possibly achieve it.
If the government has any intention of keeping rivers alive, they’ll need to use water buybacks, which have proven time and time again to be by far the cheapest and most-reliable option.
Without this, we risk overreliance on on-farm efficiency projects which have poor accounting that may drastically overestimate water savings. On-farm projects also do relatively little to support smaller family farms. They largely benefit corporate agribusinesses, which are 20 times more likely to receive subsidies.
The Investment Package is meant to improve community resilience, but resilience won’t be founded on an empty riverbed. Minister Pitt has been handed the responsibility of restoring our river to health. But by limiting his options to the smallest bucket, he’s likely to leave the river sicker than he found it.
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