Fight for wa­ter trig­gers in­quiry


An in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the cen­tu­ry­old agree­ment on how wa­ter is shared among the states is ex­pected to shake up man­age­ment of the Mur­ray-Dar­ling Basin.

In a big win for ir­ri­ga­tion farm­ers, Wa­ter Re­sources Min­is­ter David Lit­tleproud has writ­ten to his state coun­ter­parts ad­vis­ing them he has com­mis­sioned his wa­ter watch­dog, Mick Keelty, to con­duct the in­quiry and re­port back by the end of March.

Mr Lit­tleproud has asked the states to agree on leg­is­la­tion to grant Mr Keelty, a for­mer fed­eral po­lice chief, strong pow­ers in his role as the In­terim In­spec­tor-Gen­eral of Mur­ray-Dar­ling Basin Wa­ter Re­sources.

Mr Keelty will ex­am­ine whether the wa­ter-shar­ing agree­ment among the states, which goes back to 1914, is still work­able.

The treaty, now known as the Mur­ray-Dar­ling Basin Agree­ment, among other things, en­sures South Aus­tralia gets a large amount of wa­ter from up­stream states, re­gard­less of whether the river system is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing nor­mal flows or not.

While Mr Lit­tleproud’s let­ter does not say it ex­plic­itly, the tasks as­signed Mr Keelty sug­gest he will re­view whether too much wa­ter is be­ing as­signed to South Aus­tralia re­gard­less of the drought, a com­plaint of NSW ir­ri­ga­tors in par­tic­u­lar.

Mr Lit­tleproud’s ini­tia­tive came af­ter he met a del­e­ga­tion of farm­ers and com­mu­nity lead­ers who mounted a protest against the Mur­ray-Dar­ling Basin Plan in Canberra on Mon­day and Tues­day.

On Tues­day, Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Michael McCor­mack ven­tured out­side Par­lia­ment House to speak to the pro­test­ers, and was as­sailed with strong lan­guage. When Mr McCor­mack ob­served that “when it rains, there’s more wa­ter”, a size­able bearded man with an Aus­tralian flag on his hat said “that bull­shit doesn’t wash with us”. “We know what rain­wa­ter is and we know what ir­ri­ga­tion wa­ter is, and they’re two dif­fer­ent things,” the man said.

In his let­ter to the state wa­ter min­is­ters de­liv­ered late on Mon­day night, Mr Lit­tleproud wrote “as you well know, the on­go­ing drought con­di­tions in many parts of the Basin and the man­age­ment of Mur­ray-Dar­ling Basin wa­ter re­sources re­main of high com­mu­nity con­cern”. “Changes to wa­ter man­age­ment over time have led to a range of im­pacts that have taken a toll on the Basin com­mu­ni­ties and ir­ri­ga­tors,” he wrote.

Any move to re­duce wa­ter to South Aus­tralia would lead to a mon­u­men­tal in­ter­state bat­tle, and that state’s Wa­ter Min­is­ter, David Speirs, sig­nalled to that ef­fect within hours of the an­nounce­ment of the Keelty in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“We are seek­ing fur­ther de­tail about the pro­posed re­view, how­ever we would only be in­ter­ested in look­ing at wa­ter-shar­ing changes that im­proved long-term out­comes for all ju­ris­dic­tions,” Mr Speirs told The Aus­tralian.

“We will not ac­cept any less wa­ter flow­ing down the river.”

In his let­ter to wa­ter min­is­ters, who will meet later this month, Mr Lit­tleproud said since the start of the basin plan in 2012, un­der which wa­ter en­ti­tle­ments held by ir­ri­ga­tors have been pro­gres­sively pur­chased by the com­mon­wealth to pro­vide for environmen­tal flows, “there have been a range of is­sues raised that go well be­yond the

im­ple­men­ta­tion” of the plan. Mr Lit­tleproud said he had asked Mr Keelty, as a “trusted voice”, to in­ves­ti­gate two is­sues in par­tic­u­lar, the first be­ing “the im­pact of chang­ing dis­tri­bu­tion of in­flows to the south­ern basin on state shares un­der the Mur­ray-Dar­ling Basin Agree­ment”.

He has se­condly asked Mr Keelty to “con­sider any con­se­quen­tial im­pacts on state wa­ter shares re­sult­ing from re­serves re­quired” un­der the agree­ment.

The NSW Ir­ri­ga­tors Coun­cil wel­comed the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The coun­cil’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, Luke Simpkins, wrote to Mr Lit­tleproud last month ex­press­ing con­cerns that the Mur­ray-Dar­ling Basin Agree­ment “has be­come out­dated, par­tic­u­larly in the con­text of in­creas­ingly fre­quent, se­vere and long droughts” and “the ex­tent to which the agree­ment al­lows ap­pro­pri­ate shar­ing of drought risk/im­pact across the states”.

At a news con­fer­ence, Mr Lit­tleproud said he would live up to his com­mit­ment to farm­ers, and said Mr Keelty “can make sure that we have an un­der­stand­ing of the le­git­i­macy of those claims and make sure it is trans­par­ent and in­de­pen­dent”.

“This is an op­por­tu­nity for all basin states to build trust right across the basin,” he said.

Mr Keelty said he would ex­am­ine “avail­abil­ity of wa­ter for these farm­ers” and “whether or not the cur­rent poli­cies are in­hibit­ing their ac­cess to wa­ter”.

How­ever, a text mes­sage from a staffer in Mr Lit­tleproud’s of­fice seen by The Aus­tralian em­pha­sises that what the ir­ri­ga­tors were promised was an in­ves­ti­ga­tion rather than ad­di­tional wa­ter.

“No more wa­ter promised — a re­view and writ­ing to states for them to sup­port Mick Keelty,” the text to Na­tion­als me­dia ad­vis­ers says.

The an­nounce­ment of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion comes as NSW Deputy Premier John Bar­i­laro and Wa­ter Min­is­ter Melinda Pavey is­sued a set of de­mands to the fed­eral govern­ment and basin states for stay­ing in the plan, in­clud­ing be­ing freed of con­tribut­ing more wa­ter for the en­vi­ron­ment. But Mr Speirs re­jected the claims out­right.

“The South Aus­tralian govern­ment will not be agree­ing to the NSW Na­tional Party’s lat­est ir­ra­tional list of de­mands,” he said.

There is grow­ing con­cern that changes to wa­ter man­age­ment over time have led to a range of im­pacts that have taken a toll on Basin com­mu­ni­ties and ir­ri­ga­tors. From David Lit­tleproud’s let­ter to state min­is­ters


Michael McCor­mack speaks to pro­test­ers at the Can the Plan rally at Par­lia­ment House on Tues­day

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