Premier Jay Weatherill fights changes to the Murray Darling Basin Plan

South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill at a press conference on Tuesday discussing the state government's position on proposed changes to the Basin Plan.
South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill at a press conference on Tuesday discussing the state government's position on proposed changes to the Basin Plan.

Premier Jay Weatherill has threatened to reinstate the Fight for the Murray campaign after Federal Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources Barnaby Joyce said he would cut the state’s water allocation.

South Australia is now at risk of losing 450 gigalitres of water and $1.77 billion that would be applied to infrastructure that was promised in the Basin Plan 2012.

In 2012, the bipartisan agreement was formed and legislated to ensure 3200 gigalitres (GL) would be returned to the river.

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research organisation (CSIRO) determined 3200GL was the baseline volume of water needed to keep the basin system alive.

CSIRO research stated the water was needed to keep the Murray mouth open, reduce salinity in the Coorong and Lower Lakes, increase flows to the Coorong and allow for an increase in floodplain watering across all three states.

According to the State Minister for Water Ian Hunter, a letter was received from Mr Joyce explaining he would no longer deliver on the agreement.

Mr Joyce stated that returning the additional 450GL into the river was no longer viable.

“If it was genuinely possible to put an additional 450GL down the river without hurting people, then none of us would have a problem with it,” the letter stated.

“The reality is that it will.”

Mr Hunter said that if the 450GL that was agreed on was not delivered the funding should be shared to go towards other projects.

“Mr Joyce said he no longer thinks it is possible to return the water in a socio-economically neutral way,” he said.

“Research has shown that 3200GL is the bare minimum and we need every bit of it,” he said.

To fight back at Mr Joyce’s decision, Mr Hunter said the state government would explore all its legal options if necessary.

“We have a signed, legislated agreement so our position is much stronger now that it once was so if we need to bring lawyers into it, we will,” he said.

“We’ve got a very real fear now that the government won’t deliver on the agreement.”

The Premier has issued an ultimatum to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to ensure the full amount is returned to the waterways or he would reinstate the 2012 Fight for the Murray campaign once again. He felt South Australia was being ignored.

“Minister Joyce has made it clear he has no concern for the health of the river downstream of the eastern states,” he said.

“He has previously told South Australian irrigators to go where the water is... that is not the attitude that we should expect from a federal minister in charge of such an important resource.”

Mr Weatherill said the Basin Plan 2012 concluded with a historic agreement to put the health of the river first and consumptive users second.

“We knew the river had to get what it needed to be healthy first and then we divided what was left amongst the other users,” he said.

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) called now for submissions on its proposed amendments to the original agreement, including its proposal to reduce the water recovery target for the Northern Basin by 70GL.

MDBA chief executive Phillip Glyde said the amendments struck a balance between social, economic and environmental interests.

“Reducing the water recovery target from 390GL to 320GL in the north will save about 200 jobs in irrigation dependent communities while continuing to deliver about the same level of environmental outcomes,” he said.

“It’s important to remember that the Basin Plan was agreed in 2012 with bipartisan support because Australia needed a plan to save the Murray–Darling system because it was under serious and damaging strain.”

Four years on, the MDBA has released a Northern Basin Review to deliver a socioeconomic analysis of how different levels of water recovery could affect northern basin communities and industries.

Submissions for changes to the Basin Plan 2012 will close on February 10, 2017.

To make a submission go to www.mdba.gov.au/BPamendments.