Extending basin plan deadlines not an option, says Pitt

By Alana Christensen

Extending Murray-Darling Basin Plan timelines would only drive uncertainty, according to Federal Water Minister Keith Pitt who has urged states to "pull out all the stops" to reach the 2024 deadline for the plan.

Addressing the online Murray-Darling Association annual conference on Wednesday morning, Mr Pitt said despite offset projects to deliver 605 Gl of savings and water recovery to deliver 450 Gl of ‘up-water’ running behind schedule, the 2024 deadline remained.

An independent report recently found just 1.9 Gl of the 450 Gl of ‘up-water’ had been recovered and the 2024 deadline would not be met.

Mr Pitt urged basin states and communities to band together in the final four years of the plan.

“Unfortunately water policy has descended into an argument of who holds what water,” he said.

“It needs to be a partnership, not a philosophical battleground.

“There is more all governments can do to build trust, accountability and transparency.”

Murray-Darling Basin Authority chief executive Phillip Glyde said the focus remained on delivering as much water as possible.

Mr Pitt recently reaffirmed the Federal Government's commitment that no buybacks would be undertaken to reach the 450 Gl target, with the focus on off-farm projects.

As a result, Mr Glyde said the focus would be on accelerating the work on supply measures and addressing other issues such as water delivery through the Barmah Choke to find other solutions to meet the water recovery targets.

“We have four years to go. Let's get on with it and try to get as much done as we can,” he said.

“Let's see how far we can get. That's the spirit we'd like to see in communities.”

MDBA chair Sir Angus Houston said he hoped to deliver the plan to the fullest extent possible, rebuild trust, get into basin communities and deliver key reforms in his four-year term as chair.

“(I want to implement reforms that) look after the community, look after the health of rivers and deliver essential balance so everyone gets a fair go.”

He plans to tour the basin as soon as COVID-19 restrictions allow, with a trip planned around NSW in the coming weeks.

In addressing concerns about the health of the Barmah Choke, which has experienced high unseasonal flows due to downstream demand, Mr Pitt said options were being explored.

“I don't see the purpose of not managing it and ending up with bank collapses and water running into the forest at inopportune times,” he said.

“Recommendations are coming.”

It's an issue that went "through to the keeper" Greater Shepparton City Council councillor Dennis Patterson told the conference.

He said the failure to properly address the water deliverability had resulted in significant damage to both the Goulburn River and Barmah Choke, with record high inter-valley transfers leaving the banks of the Goulburn River "soaked" for months and its banks "decimated".

Ecologist Ian Davidson echoed Cr Patterson's concerns and said the Barmah Choke was a "complete disaster" with many of the outer banks eroding.

“Ecologically there's a lot of risks,” he said.

While Mr Davidson said restricting flows was part of the answer, more needed to be done as demand for the water downstream would not reduce.