Murray-Darling plan is go, but facing opposition

ENVIRONMENT Minister Tony Burke has declared an end to more than 100 years of fighting over the Murray-Darling Basin after signing into law a long-awaited plan to save the river system.
Nanjing Night Net

But the plan still faces hurdles, with the Greens saying they will move to disallow it when it is tabled in Parliament next week, and biggest basin state New South Wales expressing hostility to its final design.

Speaking on Thursday, Mr Burke said Australia had been waiting for the reform since Federation.

”In my view, Australia has been putting this off for more than a century. That needs to end, that ends today,” Mr Burke said.

Laws to restore the river basin were introduced under the former Howard government. It took five years and several iterations before the plan was finalised.

Under the plan, an average 2750 billion litres of water will be recovered each year for the river’s environmental sites – wetlands, flood plains, and riverside forests – by 2019. Almost $10 billion has been promised for voluntary buybacks of farmers’ water entitlements and water-saving upgrades to irrigation infrastructure.

A separate bill, which passed the Senate this week, allows the government to spend another $1.8 billion by 2024 to recover an extra 450 billion litres a year for the river through water savings from on-farm infrastructure upgrades.

In a concession to state governments, particularly Victoria, the plan allows for up to 650 billion litres of the water to be recovered to come from so-called ”environmental works and measures” such as pumping and piping water into wetlands.

The plan will have to survive a disallowance motion by the Greens, with the minor party’s water spokeswoman, Sarah Hanson-Young, saying they wanted it amended because not enough water was delivered for the river to ensure its environmental health.

”It is extremely disappointing to see the Labor government working to deliver a plan that satisfies Barnaby Joyce and his big irrigator friends,” Senator Hanson-Young said.

Opposition parliamentary secretary Simon Birmingham said the opposition would inspect the details of the plan before making its position clear. But he hoped the Coalition could ”work with the government to get the types of assurances and commitments in place that are needed to be able to get an outcome from this”.

The plan received a mixed response from farmers, with some saying they had to trust that the government would recover the vast bulk of water through infrastructure projects rather than buybacks. The Australian Conservation Foundation gave the plan qualified support, but other green groups said it failed the environment.

An intergovernmental agreement with state governments on how the basin plan is to be implemented is also still to be signed. Mr Burke said he expected that to happen at next month’s meeting of the Council of Australian Governments.

Victorian Water Minister Peter Walsh said the state government had issues to be resolved before it could lend full support.

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