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