A scheme to recover water from farmers to benefit the environment under the $12 billion Murray Darling Basin Plan has been abandoned, as the Morrison government says communities cannot sustain the economic impact of reduced irrigation activity.
However, the Commonwealth’s former manager of environmental water has accused the government of caving to pressure from farm groups and experts warn the Morrison government’s alternate water-saving policy may not return enough water to the river to restore its health.
Federal Water Minister Keith Pitt on Wednesday axed the $1.5 billion Water Efficiency Program, which was designed to recover up to 450 gigalitres through voluntary on-farm projects like lining irrigation channels or funding efficient irrigation systems, and to share the savings between farmers and the environment. Mr Pitt said irrigation towns cannot sustain any further loss of water from farmers. He remains committed to recovering the 450 gigalitres but said he would only recover water from off-farm sources by upgrading infrastructure like pipelines and harvesting stormwater.
Professor Jamie Pittock from the ANU Fenner School of Environment said he welcomed Mr Pitt’s commitment to recover all of the 450 gigalitres, but warned the “devil is in the detail” on the alternate savings.
The government has compiled a list of provisional off-farm projects, which Professor Pittock labelled a “bizarre grab bag”; ranging from productive measures such as piping open stock and domestic channels to those with more questionable benefits including stormwater harvesting and upgrading bridges.
“It’s very unclear from what’s on the list how much water can be saved, at what cost, and if it will all add up to 450 gigalitres,” he said.