Amid Drought, Australian Water Minister Asks for States’ Support Ahead of Meeting Over River System

Two states are calling for major changes to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan
December 16, 2019 Updated: December 16, 2019

Ahead of a meeting of Australia’s water ministers in Brisbane on Tuesday, Australian Federal Water Minister David Littleproud has called for state governments to back tough new compliance powers for the man slated to police the Murray-Darling Basin, a large geographical area in the interior of southeastern Australia.

“The inspector-general needs powers to compel evidence and call witnesses so he can make recommendations,” Littleproud said, ahead of a meeting of Australia’s water ministers over the basin.

Former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty is acting as the Inspector-General of Murray-Darling Water Resources on an interim basis. In early December, Littleproud notified NSW Water Minister Melinda Pavey that he had commissioned Keelty to conduct an inquiry into the management of the Murray-Darling River Basin and report back by the end of March, 2020.

Littleproud said farmers had asked for the investigation and backed the inspector-general role.

“This will require basin states to share their powers with the inspector-general so they can shine the light on basin plan implementation and make recommendations,” he said. “The states will retain fully all their existing powers enshrined in their legislation.”

But Victoria and NSW have raised concerns with handing over power to Keelty. Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville is concerned that the same person responsible for compliance could recommend changes to water-sharing arrangements through the inquiry.

The two states are also calling for major changes to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

A report commissioned by the key states found the plan’s 2024 deadline for allowing more environmental water to be released into the river system has a “high chance of failure” if changes are not made.

Pavey and Neville want the deadline removed.

“What we’re talking about here is creating a man-made flood to achieve environmental benefits—yet we’ve found that under the current modelling, neither the community or the environment will get a good outcome,” Neville said in a statement. “We need to go back and make sure the modelling is real life and can accurately explain the impact this will have on properties and homes—and demonstrate what environmental outcomes will actually be achieved.”

“These things take time to get right which is why we need to discuss a new timeframe for the Constraints Measures Program and agree on a pathway forward for delivery beyond 2024,” she added.

Pavey noted that times have changed and so should planned deadlines.

“NSW is gripped by the worst drought on record. We have already done the heavy lifting for the basin plan and our communities are suffering as a result,” Pavey said in a statement. “At the time the MDBP was conceived it used the best available science, this does not mean it’s the best science—localism and adaptive management was to be hardwired into its DNA, and we’re not seeing that.”

“This report shows there needs to be a re-think of how the plan works, or it will fail. We need artificial timeframes to be removed and projects that deliver real world outcomes for our communities,” she added.

NSW has threatened to pull out of the plan in recent months.

By Matt Coughlan. Epoch Times staff contributed to this report.