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Irrigators say Murray-Darling Basin focus needs to be on delivering outcomes, not on deadlines

2 August 2022

A winding river joining a lagoon, with trees along the bank and dead trees in the foreground in shallow water.
The delivery of 450 gigalitres of environmental water for South Australia has been a controversial topic.(ABC Open contributor mickw78)

A South Australian irrigators body says contention over the deadline for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is taking focus away from creating positive outcomes for the environment. 

Key points:

  • SA Murray Irrigators chair Caren Martin says the Murray Darling Basin Plan should focus on results over meeting deadlines
  • She says the lack of progress to date is "disappointing"
  • A water law expert says the plan's deadlines have been used as a "political football"

An objective of the plan to deliver 450 gigalitres of environmental water for South Australia has been a political hotbed ever since it was signed off. 

Labor made the water's delivery, in full and by the plan's June 2024 deadline, a key promise in the lead-up to May's federal election. 

But the new Water Minister, Tanya Plibersek, told the National Press Club earlier this month meeting that deadline would be  "next to impossible".

She has since denied reports the June 2024 deadline could be pushed back. 

"It's a tough job but I'm looking at all my options now for how we meet that full 450GL target," she said today. 

"I'll be meeting with the Murray-Darling water ministers in the first instance in coming months and making sure every state and territory is doing their share in getting us to that target too." 

SA Murray Irrigators chair Caren Martin says focus on the deadline is getting in the way of progress.

Chairperson of the South Australian Murray Irrigators Caren Martin standing outside posing for a photo
Caren Martin says she would support pushing back key deadlines for the basin plan if it meant the outcomes were delivered in full. (ABC Riverland: Jessica Schremmer)

"It's disappointing to get to this point and still not be done and that does have a little bit of political blame in there as the issue was hijacked and the result was secondary," she said. 

"We have always supported doing it correctly more than doing it quickly. I think people will be forgiven if more time is needed to get it right and to keep all the vested interested across the basin happy. 

"If that takes a little more time then I think we'd give that grace, but not at our expense, so I would want some good commitments."

Basin plan a 'political football'

University of South Australia water law expert Jennifer McKay agrees focusing on the processes to create a healthier basin needs to be a top priority. 

"The idea of having a deadline was great because it focused people's minds but it didn't focus some minds as we know from the failure to deliver water plans in the upstream states," Professor McKay said. 

Coorong near the Murray mouth
The Coorong is one area set to benefit from increased environmental flows into South Australia. (Supplied: Jack Creevy)

"It has been used as a political football to mobilise people in other parts of the country to be very negative towards this whole process. 

"Those days are over; we have a serious problem. There needs to be serious administrative push added to the process which might well be facilitated by further engagement with key actors."

The last time the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council met was in April of last year and SA Water Minister Susan Close said it was time to come together again. 

She said Ms Plibersek was doing a good job progressing water saving measures, but she would hold the government to account if it wasn't delivering for the Murray River. 

"I will criticise the federal government no matter what colour they are if they're not doing the right thing by the Murray," she said. 

A woman with brown hair speaks to microphones
Susan Close is content with how water saving measures are progressing. (ABC News: Ethan Rix)

"But at the moment though she (Ms Plibersek) is saying all the right things and she is very clear that the water needs to be delivered."