Government seeks refresh on Murray Darling plan

The $13 billion Murray-Darling Basin Plan aimed to return 450 gigalitres of water by June 2024.

The $13 billion Murray-Darling Basin Plan aimed to return 450 gigalitres of water by June 2024. Photo: AAP

Plans to rehabilitate one of Australia’s most important river systems have fallen by the wayside, forcing the federal government to push back its targets.

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek introduced legislation on Wednesday to amend the Murray Darling Basin plan, following revelations it would fail to hit its 2024 water recovery targets.

The scheme outlines an amount of water that can be taken from the ailing basin each year while also leaving an environmentally sustainable amount to support local wetlands, rivers and lakes, and the plants and animals that live in those biomes.

To address years of drought and water over-allocation to industry, agriculture and communities, the plan aimed to return 450 gigalitres of additional water to the environment by June.

The legislation has pushed this deadline to December 2027.

With increasingly extreme climate change impacts and drought likely to reduce the basin’s flow by as much as 30 per cent by 2050, Ms Plibersek said the plan was more necessary than ever.

“It can be tempting to push that reality of drought out of our minds, but drought is part of the Australian condition,” she told parliament on Wednesday.

“We can pray for more respite, we can hope for more breathing space. But as long as we live on this continent, it will always be back.”

Ms Plibersek blamed the delay on the previous government, accusing the coalition of “waging an insidious war” against the plan.

The coalition blocked water recovery programs, prevented projects from delivering water savings and attempted to cut recovery targets, the environment minister said.

“With all that stalling and sabotage, it’s now impossible to deliver the plan on the original timeline.”

The new plan also includes more options and funding to deliver the remaining water, such as through voluntary buybacks.

Nationals leader David Littleproud said his party did not support water buybacks, calling them “blunt instruments” and claimed the bill would cause hurt in regional and rural communities.

“This is where ideology isn’t meeting the practical reality,” he told reporters on Wednesday.

“It’s the machinery dealer, it’s the plumber, it’s the hairdresser, it’s the cafes that have money ripped out of their economies because water has come out.”

Opposition water spokeswoman Perin Davey wants the legislation sent to an inquiry and a committee to visit affected communities.

The Greens are supporting the move for an inquiry and pushing for more stringent oversight mechanisms to ensure all 450 gigalitres earmarked for the environment are recovered.

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the party wanted to be sure the water would be recovered this time and not “just kick the can down the road”.

The Murray Darling system covers one million square kilometres across south-eastern Australia and provides drinking water for roughly three million people and some 30 threatened species in the region.

The governments of NSW, South Australia, Queensland and the ACT all signed up to the new plan, with Victoria the only basin state to oppose it due to the government’s opposition to buybacks.


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