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Published: 28 March 2019   •   Opinion pieces

As we move through autumn, I am all too aware that many people in the Murray–Darling Basin continue to face difficult times, with no end to the drought in sight. It's tough on the whole river system, on farmers, on communities and the environment alike.

At its core, the Basin Plan is about getting the balance right to share water fairly. This way, our rivers can be healthy, irrigation can be sustainable and communities can plan ahead along the Murray, the Goulburn, the Murrumbidgee and all the Basin's rivers.

Achieving that balance has meant acquiring a portion of water from farmers, through purchase or through public investment into farm infrastructure, and returning it to the environmental side of the ledger. As the custodian of that water, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH) is bound by law to use it solely for building the health of the river.

Lately, as the drought bites, there have been calls to reverse that process by returning water from the environment to irrigators.

This idea assumes there is legal provision for such a transfer to occur and that the environmental water holder has water to spare.

This is not the case on either count.

Regardless of the climate, the Water Act does not allow water earmarked for the environment to be returned to farmers either on loan or as a gift. There is provision, however, for environmental water to be sold on the open market, for anyone to purchase, strictly on condition that the environment doesn't suffer as a result.

In the event that there is water to sell, the CEWH is obliged by law to sell it on the open market and ask the market price for that water, just as all other water licence holders do. The water of course would go to the highest bidder, not necessarily those farmers who are suffering most from the drought and the process of water reform.

It is really important that we all respect the right of people with water licences to use their allocations as they see fit—whether it's environment managers sustaining river ecosystems or irrigators sustaining production.

To change the Commonwealth Water Act in response to drought or any other weather conditions would be ineffective and create uncertainty. The Basin Plan is already designed to take account of all climate conditions, from drought to flood. It is critically important for the long-term sustainability of the Basin and the industries that depend on its water that we give this visionary plan its chance to work.

And it probably comes as no surprise that there is no environmental water to spare. Some of the environmental targets that the CEWH has to try to meet are likely to be missed this year, and there is significant risk that targets will be missed next year. The environment needs all the water it's got, including the planned use of water carried into the year ahead, so there is not a surplus to put on the market.

Governments across the Murray–Darling have committed to the Basin Plan so that water for the environment can be used in the places and at the times that allow the best possible outcomes, especially during dry times. With the outlook continuing dry across the Basin, managing forward risk is in everyone's interest.

In its short, six-year life the plan has been reviewed, evaluated and the subject of multiple inquiries to test its effectiveness and legality, despite it only being half-way along the track to completion in 2024.

Each review effort has failed to come up with a credible alternative. There is no benefit in pausing the plan, or wishing to go back to the days of overuse of this precious resource.

All Basin state governments and the Commonwealth government are getting on with the job of delivering the Basin Plan, supported by the MDBA. It is in the long-run interest of the Basin's environment, and the farmers and communities it supports, to see it through in these incredibly tough times. This is a hard road but it is the only road to the future survival of the nation's food bowl.


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