Murray-Darling Basin water infrastructure program may offer lifeline to Coorong farmers

A federal water-saving program could finally help the Coorong district's pastoralists access affordable water.

At Murray Bridge Community Club on Tuesday, Department of Agriculture and Water Resources spokeswoman Mary Colreavy took questions from about 35 people about the evolving Murray-Darling Basin Water Infrastructure (MDBWI) Program.

Local action plan implementation officer Tracey Strugnell asked whether the program could fund catchments, on-farm desalination and link detection activities which would help the Coorong district's pastoralists reduce their reliance on SA Water.

"The landholders I work with would be very interested in not using SA Water any more," she said.

"It's still Murray water, it would be wholly saved, it's just that the water goes through a filtration plant and is commoditised."

Ms Colreavy suggested those landholders could be eligible for funding, so long as SA Water and the state government could transfer a water entitlement back.

She said she would be happy to work with the state on the idea.

The meeting was held to explain new criteria that may soon have to be ticked off before the government will agree to fund water-saving projects.

Proponents would have to obtain support from their local council or Regional Development Australia and – if applicable – an irrigation network operator.

The government is also thinking of encouraging industry-specific, network-specific or region-specific water-saving programs; and publishing more information about the projects it funds.

The department has been given $1.4 billion and asked to find 450 gigalitres of water savings by 2024, including 62GL by next July, without negatively impacting river communities.

Under the MDBWI program, irrigators and other water owners will be able to earn up to 1.75 times the value of any water they can save by making their operations more efficient.

However, unlike during the COFFIE pilot program – which closed on October 5, and which the new program will replace – proponents will not be reimbursed for buying land or equipment, or building anything not directly related to water savings.

"The focus is supposed to be water efficiency," Ms Colreavy said.

"Some of those projects might benefit on-farm efficiency, but their link to water savings was often pretty obtuse."

Although New South Wales and Victoria will not participate in the program for political reasons, water entitlements transferred from those states will still likely be eligible to be returned to the environment.

Councils and property developers will also be able to apply for funding for any project which might enable more efficient water use or reduce reliance on the River Murray.

"We really are open to any good, innovative idea with a water saving we can quantify," Ms Colreavy said.

"As long as that saving can be made available as environmental water, we'd be interested."

The 450GL to be saved will be added to the overall figure due to be returned to the environment through the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

That figure was originally 2750GL, but is now 2075GL after two adjustments to the so-called sustainable diversion limit.

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