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Water promised to the Murray-Darling Basin won't be delivered, despite PM doubling down on commitment

3 August 2022

By national rural reporters Kath Sullivan and Clint Jasper
An aerial photo of water flowing through the gates at Lake Menindee, April 2021
There's been record rainfall across the Murray Darling Basin, but environmentalists are fearful for the next drought.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

Almost a Sydney Harbour's worth of water committed to Australia’s largest river system can't be delivered by a 2024 deadline, a new report has found, despite a promise from the now-Prime Minister his government would deliver the water.

Key points:

  • A promise to return 450 gigalitres of water each year to the Murray-Darling Basin won't be met
  • It could cost almost $11 billion to deliver the commitment if the 2024 deadline was removed
  • The statutory report found not enough water has been saved to date to meet the commitment

It could cost taxpayers almost $11 billion to deliver 450 gigalitres (GL) of water for the environment across the Murray-Darling system, according to the latest statutory review required under the Water Act.

"Putting aside program and timing limitations, the estimated cost to recover the full 450 GL through efficiency measures is between $3.4 billion and $10.8 billion," the second review of the Water for the Environment Special Account (WESA) found.

"It is not possible to reach the 450 GL target through the current efficiency measures program … even if the WESA's time and budget limits were removed."

Less than $60 million of the $1.7 billion WESA fund for water-saving projects had been spent as of June last year.

WESA reviewers said not enough water had been recovered to date, and requirements for where water savings could be found were too limiting.

A 2018 agreement between the Commonwealth and basin state ministers set strict criteria about how the 450 GL could be recovered, to ensure no negative social or economic impact on basin communities.

It was to be recovered for the environment by what’s known as efficiency projects – those that save water by changing the way it is used.

By June 2021, just 2 GL of water had been recovered toward the 450 GL target.

Despite several warnings the 450 GL target would not be met, Anthony Albanese doubled down on the water promise during the election campaign.

“Labor will deliver on the final 450 gigalitres of water for the environment that Scott Morrison and Barnaby Joyce failed to deliver,” Mr Albanese announced in April, in Adelaide.

Earlier this month, Water Minister Tanya Plibersek said it would be "next to impossible" to deliver the 450 GL.

In Question Time last week, she also taunted the Opposition for delivering just 2 GL while in office.

Tanya Plibersek points at the Coalition while speaking in Question Time
Tanya Plibersek took aim at the Coalition's management of the Murray-Darling in Question Time on Tuesday. (ABC News: Nick Haggarty)

Plibersek says former government 'ran down the clock' on water promise

The second WESA review was delivered to the former Water Minister Keith Pitt late last year, but not tabled in federal parliament until today.

"It’s disappointing this report was never released – but not surprising," Ms Plibersek said.

"The previous government had no intention of delivering on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, they just didn't have the guts to admit that before the election.

"The failure to deliver on the plan wasn’t due to a lack of money, it was a lack of will."

Ms Plibersek accused the Coalition of "running down the clock" on the fund for water-saving projects.

"They were deliberately hoping to leave it unspent… the report shows that under the current policy settings, there’s virtually no way that the money can be spent in the remaining time frame," she said.

A parched dry landscape, darkened in sections where a river has previously run.
Promised water for the Murray Darling Basin won't be delivered by its 2024 deadline.(Supplied: Madman)

Last year some Nationals senators and MPs unsuccessfully attempted to change the law, to scrap the 450 GL commitment, which was made in return for South Australia’s support for the 2012 Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Responding to today's report, South Australian Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young once again called on the Commonwealth to purchase water entitlements from irrigators to meet the 450GL target.

"Billions of dollars have been wasted on efficiency measures that would never, and as the Report states, will never, deliver the 450GL water needed and promised to save the River," Senator Hanson-Young said.

"This is a massive breach of faith to South Australians ... My message to Minister Plibersek is: go and buy the water," she said.

Earlier this week the Victorian Farmers’ Federation issued a statement calling on the federal government to "come clean on how it expects to recover the 450 GL and avoid negative impacts on our communities".

"Where is the openness and integrity the new government promised us?" Victorian Farmers Federation spokesman Andrew Leahy said.

The 450 GL target is one component of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Over the past decade, more than 2,100 gigalitres has been re-allocated towards a 2,750 gigalitre environmental water target.

That water has mostly come from infrastructure upgrades and farming.