Feedback from Northern Basin Programmes Taskforce consultation

The Northern Basin Programmes Taskforce asked for the views of the community, environmental and industry groups and governments about how best to achieve the remaining water recovery in the Northern Basin under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. In particular, feedback was sought on recommendations from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s Northern Basin Review.

The Northern Basin Review recommended a 70 gigalitre reduction in targeted water recovery in the Northern Basin, from 390 gigalitres to 320 gigalitres. This reduction would be dependent on the implementation of a range of environmental measures known as ‘toolkit measures’. These toolkit measures are designed to improve environmental outcomes from the available water. The toolkit measures are:

  • protection of environmental flows to strengthen the effective delivery of environmental water to where it is needed.
  • undertake more effective targeted recovery of water to improve environmental watering into required areas of the Basin while ensuring potential socio-economic impacts are reduced.
  • implementation of a range of flow event based mechanisms including one-off temporary water trade by flow event, establishing agreements regarding over-pumping, and utilising store and release for more effective delivery of water.
  • improved management of environmental flows by promoting better coordination and delivery of environmental water between federal and state agencies.
  • removal of flow constraints in the Gwydir catchment to ensure flows are delivered to the wetlands, and allow greater flow management.
  • targeted environmental works and measures such as fish passages and structures to addressing cold water pollution.

Stakeholder meetings

Between December 2016 and May 2017, the Taskforce met with people in Wee Waa, Bourke, Warren (New South Wales), Dirranbandi, St George, Toowoomba, Chinchilla and Goondiwindi (Queensland). In circumstances where people were unable to meet with the Taskforce, meetings were held in the department’s head office in Canberra, or via teleconference.

The Taskforce met with local irrigators, community representatives, Indigenous representatives and water managers, peak industry and environmental organisations, and representatives from local, state and Australian Government agencies.

Feedback was given on a range of matters including water recovery, infrastructure programmes, toolkit measures and Indigenous interests. This feedback is summarised below and will inform the Taskforce’s advice to the Commonwealth Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources.

Feedback on water recovery

The Murray-Darling Basin water recovery strategy aims to recover sufficient water from the Murray-Darling Basin system from held water entitlements to bridge the gap between current environmental flows, and those required to ensure for a healthy and sustainable Basin, while minimising. The strategy aims to mitigate negative social and economic effects on basin communities.

Many people from the community and industry stated they did not want further water buybacks. In some areas, people felt previous water recovery had negative socio-economic impacts on local communities (for example, St George, Dirranbandi, Bourke, Warren) and these impacts would worsen with further water recovery. In particular, some people did not want involuntary buybacks.

Flood-plain graziers, environmental groups and some landholders, however, felt that there should be no further reduction in water recovery, as it limited Basin Plan environmental outcomes.

In St George, people suggested that any further water recovery should take place upstream from Beardmore Dam due to its more diverse economy and minimal buy-backs to date. This would also reduce negative impacts on communities downstream.

In Toowoomba and Chinchilla, it was suggested groundwater should be bought and retired from the water market to meet groundwater recovery targets in Condamine Alluvium. This would ensure the aquifer is protected and maintain the reliability of current entitlement holders.

In Bourke and Warren, feedback was mixed. A number of people suggested that any water recovered over existing water targets should be returned to the system for productive uses. Others suggested that all water recovered to date should remain within the system, with a better balance between productive and non-productive uses.

Feedback on current Commonwealth infrastructure programmes

The Australian Government has a range of water infrastructure programme which fund irrigation infrastructure upgrades and on-farm water efficiency activities. In return, participants transfer the water savings they are confident of achieving to the government, with additional water savings retained by the irrigator.

Feedback was supportive of the Queensland Healthy Headways Water Use Efficiency programme. People saw the programme as providing a win-win for irrigators and an opportunity for continued water recovery. It was suggested this programme should be expanded to include supplementary water licences.

A number of issues were identified that limit participation in Australian Government infrastructure programmes. These included:

  • length of time taken to receive payment for approved and completed works
  • the narrow range of eligible projects, for example, supplementary and unregulated water entitlements were not included in the Irrigated Farm Modernisation programme
  • level of financial contribution required from irrigators
  • tax implications.

External considerations such as market forces were also raised as potential barriers.

Suggestions for improving infrastructure programmes included:

  • reducing the minimum volume of water that could be recovered to encourage involvement of smaller irrigators
  • extending implementation timeframes (from current 2019 deadline)
  • reducing the complexity of application processes, particularly in New South Wales
  • developing a range of mechanisms for co-contributions
  • broadening current water recovery programmes to include unregulated and supplementary entitlements, or considering a wider range of activities that increase agriculture productivity on farm. For example changing from one enterprise such as cereals to one that gives greater returns such as tree crops in return for some water
  • providing more information on irrigation efficiency programmes including why different types of entitlements are excluded.

Feedback on toolkit measures

The MDBA recommended six broad toolkit measures to improve environmental outcomes using the available water under the Northern Basin Review’s amended water recovery target of 320 gigalitres. These toolkit measures were discussed during the consultations with stakeholders.

Communities responded positively to the toolkit measures, with many people believing the measures could achieve environmental outcomes at a far cheaper cost than buying more water. Some people were concerned about whether environmental flows were adequately protected. A number of people suggested that there was insufficient evidence to show that environmental outcomes were being achieved under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Some people felt the use of toolkit measures would deliver environmental outcomes and benefit the community, where the measures could be adjusted for particular areas. There were many suggestions to expand or improve the toolkit measures, including to suit particular locations. These are being considered as part of the Northern Basin Review process.

Key suggestions included:

  • ensuring the protection of environmental flows between states, and also specifically within the Barwon-Darling catchment
  • establishing agreements with water users for purchase of their allocation under specific conditions to assist environmental flow delivery
  • allowing entitlement holders to shift between different types of entitlements, with the holder selling one type of entitlement to the Commonwealth and buying a different type with the sale proceeds
  • making amendments to water trading to expand temporary trade opportunities
  • better utilising on-farm private storages to provide greater flexibility for store and release, especially in mid to lower river areas
  • improving riparian vegetation management and bank stabilisation including developing off-stream livestock access
  • implementing real time event-based flow management, with a focus on low flow periods
  • constructing local scale channel or supporting infrastructure to assist flow delivery such as a re-regulation structure at Boomi or Mungindi
  • reducing cold water pollution impacts such as at Glenlyon Dam
  • addressing constraints issues such as those present in the Macquarie Marshes
  • improving carp control throughout the Northern Basin
  • improving fish migration by building fish passages at high priority areas such as within the Dumaresq River and at Boggabilla weir, and trial pump mesh re‑snagging to provide fish habitats
  • addressing and manage dryland salinity issues
  • addressing water quality issues
  • improving water entitlement compliance and regulation in the Barwon-Darling
  • conducting further research into reducing high evaporative losses in storages.

It was often suggested that toolkit measures such as the protection of environmental water, use of farm storages to release water and the use of temporary trade, will be important to achieve environmental outcomes in the north.

Feedback on Indigenous interests

Projects were identified that would provide direct benefits to local Indigenous communities while providing environmental outcomes. These included:

  • re-establishment of the Caring for Country ranger programme in Dirranbandi
  • development of Indigenous tourism such as culturally-based walking tours to provide employment opportunities
  • involvement of communities in the implementation of toolkit measures such as riparian vegetation management to create employment opportunities.

Other feedback

Other topics raised during the consultations included:

  • concern about the impacts of coal seam gas exploration and waste on water resources in Queensland. This feedback has been passed on to the Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy.
  • feedback about rule changes in Queensland regarding water savings in the distribution system. Stakeholders should pursue this issue with the Queensland state government.
  • the need for co-ordinated monitoring, evaluation, reporting and improvement to demonstrate environmental outcomes. This feedback has been passed on to the Commonwealth Environment Water Office.
  • the positive impact that large irrigation companies can have on communities if they shop locally
  • the need for easier access to mental health services in some areas. This feedback has been given to the Assistant Minister for Rural Health.
  • falling real estate prices in some towns (e.g. Dirranbandi).