Last month, the New South Wales Irrigators’ Council Policy Manager wrote about water reform in Australia in preparation for the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council Meeting in Adelaide. Today, Stefanie Schulte authors a follow-up piece reflecting on the meeting’s outcomes and the future of water reform in the region.
You can never be quite sure how a Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council (MINCO) meeting will turn out, but 2016’s final session was particularly unconventional. The ‘water is for fighting over’ adage certainly came to pass as the gloves came off in Adelaide on 18 November between Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin water ministers. They were supposed to be negotiating the next steps in the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan 2012 – including progress on the non-flow “complimentary measures”.
A Tale of Two…
When you compare the official Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council meeting communiqué with the media reports that were released subsequent to MINCO, you might think these were two completely different meetings. Officially, water ministers acknowledged the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s work on the Northern Basin Review, discussed the impacts of the recent floods in Australia, and were briefed on the Sustainable Diversion Limit adjustment mechanism. In contrast, media coverage spread a sense of ‘doom and gloom’ for the future of Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin Plan and declared Australia’s long term water reform process all but dead.
Fact is, everyone had something to say about this last MINCO for 2016 – most of which was simply empty rhetoric. Reports included stories about heated debates – spiced with very explicit language – between different ministers; accusations from all sides of Australian politics; and polarising media claims from various opposing stakeholders. There was talk about pretty much everything…except the task at hand.
What is there still to do?
Although we are ‘nearly there’ in terms of the Australian government’s environmental water recovery, an enormous amount of work needs to be completed before the Murray-Darling Basin Plan comes into effect in 2019.
Firstly, we need to finalise the Northern Basin Review.
While the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has proposed reducing the total volume of planned environmental water recovery in the Northern Murray-Darling Basin from 390GL to 320GL, a further 42GL of water will need to be recovered to meet the target. The remaining water will need to come from water license holders in Queensland and New South Wales. Most of the recovery will come from the state of Queensland, but the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has proposed an additional 11GL in environmental water recovery from just two New South Wales valleys – even though the state has already recovered 7GL more than its required total reduction target.
Sounds odd? It should!
We are faced with this curious situation because the Murray-Darling Basin Authority sets ‘local reduction targets’ in individual valleys and ‘shared reduction targets’ across regions. The distribution of these reductions can be nominated by the respective Basin states. In the Northern Basin review, the Murray-Darling Authority has switched the ‘shared reduction targets’ to ‘local reduction targets’ – effectively locking individual valleys into specific environmental water recovery targets despite an overall over-recovery in the state.
The decision has led to some extraordinary circumstances. In New South Wales’ Barwon-Darling Valley, the original local reduction target was 6GL and the shared target 22GL. Now, its local target is 32GL and the shared reduction requirement zero. It should be mentioned that the current environmental water recovery target in the Barwon-Darling is 32GL. Convenient? Yes, a bit too convenient.
In addition, it has also meant that there are some valleys in New South Wales that have experienced an over-recovery of environmental water – including the Gwydir and Macquarie-Castlereagh valleys. Combined, these two valleys have recovered 18GL more than their proposed total reduction targets.
Unsurprisingly, questions have been raised as to how this over-recovery of environmental water will be addressed. This and other important issues still need to worked through over the 10-week consultation period for the Northern Basin Review, due to conclude on 10th February 2017.
Secondly, we need to settle on a package of projects around the Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism.
As mentioned in my previous post, we only have six more months to agree to a package of ‘supply measures’ for the Murray-Darling Basin Sustainable Diversion Limit adjustment mechanism. To date, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has modelled only 19 of the currently 37 notified projects with an indicative offset figure of around 400GL. The total adjustment can be up to 650GL if other ‘suitable’ supply measures can be found. To recap, these supply projects can be works, revised river operations, river management rule changes, or ‘other measures’ that enable the use of less water but still achieve the Murray-Darling Basin Plan’s environmental outcomes.
A lot of work is yet to be done to scope and assess any further supply measures that could make up the remaining 250GL, including non-flow complementary measures like carp control, installation of cold water pollution mitigation infrastructure, and proactive wetland management. These non-flow measures are particularly important as they can lead to wide-scale environmental benefits without the need to recover more water. Unfortunately, they are difficult to assess, as we currently do not have ‘approved’ methodologies for calculating environmental equivalences.
Thirdly, we need to have a discussion around the ‘Pre-requisite Policy’ and the ‘Toolkit’ measures.
Pre-requisite (or unimplemented) Policy and Toolkit measures are broad range actions and rule changes that can maximise the use of the Australian Government’s licenced environmental water whilst at the same time ensuring the protection of water supply and reliability to other consumptive water users.
Three main measures that have received some attention:
- Environmental flow reuse – “the ability to use environmental flows at multiple sites”; and
- Piggybacking – “the ability to call on held environmental water from a storage during an unregulated flow event”; and
- Water shepherding – “the delivery of a calculated volume of water that was created by the non-activation/reduced extraction at a nominated licence location to a more downstream location, after the consideration of losses, where it will be made available for extraction or use for the environment”.
It is yet to be determined whether (and to what extent) these measures or rule changes have adverse impacts on other water licence holders, how these might be mitigated, and who might pay for their implementation.
Finally, we need to ensure that the states’ water management arrangements are compliant with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan 2012.
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan requires Basin states to prepare ‘Water Resource Plans’ for each valley that are consistent with certain accreditation requirements. In most cases, these Water Resource Plans will incorporate existing state water management legislation, water management protocols, and manuals, but they will also include a suite of new policies and documents around environmental watering, water quality standards, trade, indigenous values, and risk assessment.
20 surface water “Water Resource Plans”, 22 groundwater “Water Resource Plans” and 6 combined groundwater and surface water “Water Resource Plans” need to be developed by 30 June 2019. To date, none have been finalised.
And lastly…Where is the money?
All these tasks are still ahead of us and time and money is running out.
The Basin Plan 2012 is scheduled to be implemented by 2019 – two years from now. Significant work needs to completed, assessed, and accredited by various State and Federal departments and agreed by Murray-Darling Basin water ministers. However, funding for most Australian Government departments involved in water will run out by mid-2017 in line with the extant 10-year funding package. The Australian Government mid-year budget will be released next Monday. It may be a moment of elation or despair for those Departments tasked with implementing the Basin Plan. The figures have yet to tell.