Farmers and businesses in the Murray-Darling Basin face an uncertain future because of government mismanagement, opposition leader Tony Abbott says.
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority released its long-awaited and much-delayed draft plan to the public on Monday. If adopted, it will require an extra 2750 gigalitres (GL) of water to be returned to the river system annually, phased in over seven years.
Chairman Craig Knowles says the release of the long-awaited and much-delayed draft plan is a new way of managing water resources in the basin.
But many farmers and irrigators are unimpressed.
“Basically what this report shows is that for many, many years to come, there will be this hole of uncertainty over the Murray Darling Basin,” Mr Abbott told reporters in Sydney.
“That means that businesses don’t know what water supplies they’ll have.
“Farmers won’t know what their future allocations will be.
“With this kind of uncertainty we have little investment, we have little reassurance for the rest of us.”
He said a plan devised by the Howard government, which allocated $6 billion for water-saving infrastructure and $3 billion for strategic buybacks, would have been a better option.
“This government has comprehensively mishandled the whole Murray Darling situation.”
RESOTRING TO HEALTH
2750 gigalitres is what the MDBA says communities should be willing to return in restoring the basin to health, flushing it clean of salt and ensuring the survival of the flora and fauna that depend on it.
“The old way of managing the basin has well and truly reached its use-by date,” Mr Knowles told ABC Television on Monday.
The plan was below the minimum 3000 to 4000 gigalitres suggested in the guide released last year.
But irrigators would have to find another 1468 gigalitres a year through improvements in water saving infrastructure.
Mr Knowles said he was cautious about some of the “extravagant” claims made by both irrigators and environmentalists.
“Economic and social impacts can be managed depending on what the remaining volume of water is to be obtained,” he said.
Mr Knowles said there would be a formal review in 2015 when the environmental, social and economic impacts would be tested.
RESTORING TO HEALTH
Federal Water Minister Tony Burke said the plan would restore the system to health and prepare it for the next drought.
“We want the system to enter the next drought with a level of resilience, a level of health and that makes sure we don’t see some of the diabolical consequences as we entered the last drought,” Mr Burke told ABC Television on Monday.
Mr Burke said there would be changes for communities in the basin.
“You can’t have reform without having that,” he said.
He said now was the time for communities to begin the change to improve the basin over the long term.
“We have got a period where the system has a lot of water in it, we also a period where the labour market in Australia is particularly strong,” Mr Burke said.
“Change is always difficult but you will not got a better time than now.”
NOWHERE NEAR ENOUGH: GREENS
The Australian Greens say the draft plan is repeating mistakes by overlooking environmental needs.
It also failed to tackle the problems of over-allocation and risked becoming a multi-billion dollar flop.
“The draft plan fails to get close to returning the minimum 4000 to 7600 gigalitres scientists say is needed to save the river,” water spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young said in a statement on Monday.
The authority had not provided the science behind its estimates, so the implications for the environment were unknown with less than 2800 GL.
“Returning only 2750 GL to the system will not keep open the Murray mouth … nor will it flush out the two million tonnes of salt that travels down the system annually,” Senator Hanson-Young said.
“This plan, unless it is modified to deliver more returns to the environment, will fail to save the river and the species that rely on it.”
The community must speak “loudly” for the interests of the river and the environment during the 20-week consultation period, she said.
Opposition water spokesman Barnaby Joyce said the draft plan lacked details in how the water would turn up.
“We need to find out why two-thirds of the water they have to get is under this mysterious X-factor,” he told ABC Radio.
The government and the authority were shirking their responsibility, he said.
“They are coming out and saying that we know that everybody wouldn’t be happy, so we are using that as an excuse in proxy for detail,” Senator Joyce said.
Of the $5.8 billion allocated to improving basin infrastructure only $250 million had been spent so far, he said.
Senator Joyce said the draft plan was taking too much of a broad-brushed approach.
There was insufficient detail about how the plan will affect local communities, he said.
“People in those towns deserve a greater socio-economic analysis of what’s happening to them,” Senator Joyce told Sky News.