Blog | 10th Nov, 2022

Victoria’s dodgy plans for the world’s first “water offsets”

The Victorian government have cooked up a new way to avoid returning enough water to the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin. It’s the world’s first “water offset” program – and it’s as risky as it sounds. 

They are planning to re-engineer a handful of wetlands along the Murray River to see if they can survive with less water. They then want to use these “water savings” to justify not returning water to other parts of the river system that need it consistently. Basically, our river red gums, turtles and birdlife will foot the bill so more water can flow to the deep pockets of corporate irrigators instead! 

The first of these projects are undergoing an environmental assessment and could soon be approved. Find out how you can use your voice to help stop these dodgy projects >> 

Take action 

Keep reading to learn more about:

WHAT IS THE GOVERNMENT PROPOSING? 

There are 9 projects being proposed right now on the Murray River, branded as the Victorian Murray Floodplain Restoration Projects (VMFRP).

These stretch from Gunbower National Park to Nyah-Vinifera, Hattah Lakes and Lindsay and Wallpolla Islands near the South Australian border.

Credit: VFMRP, 2019b

It’s based on the dubious idea that water-dependent ecosystems can survive with less water – wetlands just need to be ‘re-engineered’ and have their borders drawn-in a bit. It’s as risky as it sounds, and the science has never been tested.

The Victorian government’s plan is to put select parts of the floodplain on life support. While some river red gums will be given the water they need, other habitats may be completely drowned. Some places will miss out on getting water at all. These projects will turn dynamic mosaics of floodplain habitat into big irrigation bays.

They’ll need to clear hundreds of old trees to build the infrastructure (like levees, pumps and regulators) needed to pump water into the specific creeks, billabong and lagoons. Once these have been filled up, the regulator will close to hold the water in. Read more about the impacts here >>

On top of this, the government then wants to offset 605 billion litres of “water savings” from these projects. Instead of this water flowing to the rivers when waterbirds and communities downstream need it, it will be kept in the accounts of the wealthiest corporate irrigators! Read more about how the offset works below.

Right now, these projects are being formally reviewed for their environmental impacts. It’s essential that they’re scrutinised. And it’s critical they don’t deprive other parts of the river with a water offset.

HOW DOES THE “WATER OFFSET” WORK?

The Victorian and NSW government argue that these projects can achieve equivalent results for our wetlands with less water, using pipes and engineering. Because of this, they want to attach an “offset” so that they don’t have to return as much water to the river as was promised in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. 

It’s based on an Ecological Elements Method that’s never been tested in the real world. It uses modelling to assess ‘environmental equivalence’ – basically, how many fish, birds, frogs and trees could you keep alive with 36 Basin-wide projects? Then it models how much water the river would need to do it with a fully implemented Baisn Plan. The difference becomes ‘water savings’ – not to benefit the river, but to stay in the accounts of the biggest irrigators.  

There are MAJOR issues with this process. First, it looks at benefits from these interventions without looking at the risks. Habitat degradation and invasive species risks aren’t factored into the ‘offset’ amount at all. Second, it doesn’t look at wider impacts on the Basin, like what happens to the Coorong if the Murray doesn’t have the water it needs year-to-year. Third, it doesn’t factor in impacts of a hotter, drier climate such as decreased rainfall. And finally, it was modelled depending on the success of other projects – which the state governments are now delaying.

This accounting trick sounds as dodgy as it is. In fact, when it was subject to scrutiny in the South Australian Royal Commission, the Commissioner described the offset method as “experimental and unprecedented” with “alarming shortcomings,” including “a great deal of uncertainty in the results produced by the modelling.”

The offset is 605 billion litres in total – more than what’s in Sydney Harbour. This water is vital for our rivers health and it should be non-negotiable!

WHAT IMPACT WILL THEY HAVE ON OUR WETLANDS AND RIVERS?  

Each site has its own risks and potential benefits, but it’s worth paying attention to 3 in particular. 

Local impacts from construction

Floodplains developed over thousands of years, with subtle impressions and channels. It’s a landscape where water sits, moves and drains in unique ways. That variation in the terrain supports a mosaic of habitat – making these places biodiversity hotspots.

Re-engineering wetlands means turning these unique places into a series of irrigation bays. Hundreds of old trees would be cleared to build infrastructure. When it operates, it’s a transition from natural flows toward ponding. It changes what plants and fish can survive there.

Indirect impacts to places that won’t get water

These projects will siphon water to 9 sites. But what about everywhere else?

The wider system needs enough water set aside. That’s where the proposed 605 GL, a bit more than one Sydney Harbour, could do serious damage. Research shows that if we set aside water for the environment and let it flow, we could inundate an additional 375,000 ha of wetlands. 

Problems with consultation

The Murray-Darling won’t survive if we treat it as a series of seperate museum pieces. That’s because it’s an interconnected system.

But these projects double-down on that toxic approach. Hand-picked portions of the floodplain will receive life support. Other places will suffer. It’s greenwashing covering up triage.

Critically, some of these issues have been difficult for locals to raise and get answers on in consultation.

WHERE DO THESE FIT IN THE MURRAY-DARLING BASIN PLAN?  

At the Basin Plan’s outset, it set a target of returning 3,200 billion litres of water to our rivers. That’s about six times the size of Sydney Harbour, but less than half of what the river needs for a good chance of survival. For all its flaws, it still set in motion the ambitious goal of setting aside enough water to keep the river alive.

However, each piece of the plan has suffered from a punishing lobbying effort by powerful corporate interests – and governments have buckled under the pressure.  

The last 10 years have seen Victoria and NSW governments dodge responsibility, ignore the science, push back key Basin Plan deadlines and undermine efforts to recover the water our rivers need. These water offsetting projects are their latest delay tactic.  

The Basin Plan’s 3,200-billion-litre target has been divided into different buckets, some with convoluted mechanisms that allow nearly 20 per cent of the target to be offset. This is where these projects fit into the Plan. They’re supply measures within the Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism (SDLAM). Behind all the jargon, they’re offsets. 

The two governments are trying to greenwash these projects as climate resilience. But really, they’re just a band-aid solution for a few chosen parts of the river. Ultimately, they let 605 billion litres of water flow to wealthy corporate irrigators – not wetlands.   

The Murray Darling Basin Plan is hobbled - it's time for Tanya Plibersek to lead

Tyler Rotche, Environment Victoria

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan was implemented almost 10 years ago. But the fact is, today it is hobbling towards the finish line. It's been a slowdown since 2014.

How can I get involved?

With individual Environment Effects Statement (EES) and Environment Report (ER) hearings and roundtables for each package there are going to be plenty of opportunities to get involved and help stop these projects breezing through approvals, particularly in the first half of next year.  

The 9 projects span from Gunbower National Park to Nyah-Vinifera, Hattah Lakes and Lindsay and Wallpolla Islands near the South Australian border. The Planning Minister has appointed a committee to evaluate them in 4 packages:

  • Hattah Lakes North and Belsar-Yungera (EES)
    Submissions: Oct-Nov (now closed)
    Hearing: Likely Jan-Feb 2023 
  • Vinifera, Nyah and Burra Creek (ER)
    Submissions: Late Nov-Dec
    Roundtable: Likely Feb 2023 
  • Gunbower, Guttrum and Benwell Forests (ER)
    Submissions: Late Dec-Jan
    Roundtable: Likely Mar 2023 
  • Lindsay Island and Wallpolla Island (EES)
    Submissions: Mar 202
    Hearing: Likely Jul 2023 

If you’re keen to stay updated, get involved or lend your expertise, fill out the form below and we’ll be in touch

Header image: Credit Erik Peterson