States will be given more time to fulfill pledges to return water to the environment under the Murray-Darling Basin plan despite fears that another El Niño event could lead to more devastating droughts for eastern Australia.
The Moray-Darling Basin Authority officially advised a shortfall of 750 Gt – about 25% of the target – by June 2024, when the scheme was due to be completed. That’s the equivalent of 300,000 Olympic swimming pools.
Environment Minister Tanya Plibersk declined to say how long she was willing to give states.
“We’re definitely not talking about five or ten years,” she said. “We’re talking about some extensions with an increased expectation of delivery.
“When the temperature rises again, when it stops raining and the river stops flowing, we will be very sorry if we don’t act now,” she added.
“We don’t want Australians to wake up one day with a dead river system and find out their governments could have stopped it.”
Official advice from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority triggers the federal government to buy back more water to achieve the plan’s results, but Plebersk has remained coy about whether it would use that authority.
The decision to give states more time to implement projects rather than move to buybacks will disappoint environmental groups, who warn that a delay “would risk severe damage to the environment during the next drought.”
“With the UN declaring El Niño and Australia facing a drought, now is the worst possible time to deprive wetlands and wildlife of the water they will need to survive the difficult times ahead,” said South Australian Conservation Council Chief Executive Craig Wilkins.
Plebersk blamed the shortcomings on the coalition government, which it claimed had “waged a decade-long guerrilla war” over the plan.
It said 84% of water recovered for the plan occurred under work, compared to just 16% during the nine years of the coalition government.
“The consequences of this are disturbing and extreme,” she said.
The states are due to meet with Plebersk in August, and unlike during previous negotiations, all basin states are now under the control of Labor governments, which increases the chances of cooperation.
However, Victoria still insists that the final 450GL of environmental water agreed to bring South Australians on board is not part of the official plan.
The Albanian government has already announced an additional 49GL of water buybacks to complete the part of the plan known as “Bridging the Gap”, which would always have been achieved through buybacks, but which was held up by former Citizens Minister, Barnaby Joyce.
But the other two components of the plan – 605GL which was to be achieved through projects that save or use water more efficiently and 450GL which also includes efficiency projects – are far behind schedule.
“It’s very clear that to fully realize the plan we’ll have to do infrastructure projects, we’ll have to submit NSW water resources plans, we’ll need to buy water,” Plebersk said, leaving the door open for more buybacks.
Environment Victoria chief executive Jono La Noz said the 450gl of water destined for the environment should be restored as quickly as possible using voluntary water purchases.
Plibersek also foresaw further actions that may be necessary to ensure the river’s health in the face of climate change.
“If we don’t prepare for those dry years, all Australians will suffer – risking access to affordable food and water, with systemic ecological collapse, native animal death, fish suffocation and river communities severely stressed,” she said.
El Marw welcomed the decision to extend the timeframe for delivering the results of the plan, but indicated that they would fight any further buybacks.
“There are other options for delivering the remainder of the basin plan without another drop coming from food and fiber production,” said Christine Frick, acting chief executive of the NSW Irrigation Board.
The plan’s goals—to recover 3,200 gallons from agriculture and return them to environmental flows—were to be achieved by June 2024.
About 70% of the water was recovered through buybacks of farmers’ dues. Labor completed this task after winning government in 2022.
But two other programs – one involving projects to use water more efficiently and another to recover another 450 gallons through on-farm projects, which is the price of South Australian participation in the scheme – have failed to deliver.