Adam Morton July 11, 2012
"It's not like we have resolved every detail, but this agreement means we have resolved more than we ever have before" ... Tony Burke. Photo: Andrew Meares
A RARE agreement between the federal and state governments on the plan to rescue the Murray-Darling Basin has failed to resolve the key issue of how much water should be returned to the environment.
The federal Water Minister, Tony Burke, and his counterparts from five states and territories overcame deep divisions on Monday to agree on some changes to the basin plan proposed by the independent Murray-Darling Basin Authority.
Their recommendations included fleshing out a proposal to allow the amount of water that the federal government buys back from irrigators and returns to rivers and wetlands to be changed over time.
If it can be shown that the environment could get the same benefit through improvements to farm and river infrastructure, less water would be sought from irrigators.
But the states remain split over the authority's recommended starting point of 2750 billion litres a year being pumped into the environment.
Victoria says the plan would devastate river basin communities and wants the amount reduced; South Australia cites scientific advice saying it should be significantly increased.
Mr Burke said the consensus document agreed by ministers - which also scraps plans for a review in 2015 and says water recovery should be equitably shared between the states - ''effectively provides the design of how the reform would run''.
"It's not like we have resolved every detail, but this agreement means we have resolved more than we ever have before,'' Mr Burke said.
But the Victorian Water Minister, Peter Walsh, said he wanted significant changes to the authority's plan, citing modelling for his government that found the river system's health could be secured by buying back just 2100 billion litres.
He said state expertise must be used in coming up with the final design. ''The [authority] asked for this advice, now it must listen,'' Mr Walsh said.
The South Australian Water Minister, Paul Caica, said some progress had been made, but upstream states were still refusing to accept responsibility for decades of overallocation of water to farmers.
The NSW Primary Industries Minister, Katrina Hodgkinson, said progress had been made on many points and the authority should amend the draft plan accordingly.
Mr Burke has said he wants the plan approved by the federal Parliament this year. There is no deadline by which the basin authority must respond to the ministers' statement, but it is expected within weeks.
The National Farmers Federation president, Jock Laurie, welcomed the ministers' call for increased environmental works to save water, rather than just buying back water from irrigators. ''As we have said, getting the basin plan right is not as simple as settling on a number,'' he said.
An Australian Conservation Foundation healthy rivers campaigner, Jonathan La Nauze, also welcomed the plan to improve river management, but said it would not be credible without a strong water recovery target.
''It's important to acknowledge how far we have got with this agreement, but they have left the trickiest question outside the door,'' he said.