MDBA to lose enforcement powers with creation of new body

By Shannon Jenkins

September 4, 2020

Minister for Resources Keith Pitt. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

The federal government will create a new statutory authority to increase water compliance in the Murray-Darling Basin and intends to axe the controversial water buyback scheme.

Water minister Keith Pitt will reportedly unveil the plans on Friday, and they will include more than $170 million for projects in regional Basin communities.

The plans also involve stripping the Murray-Darling Basin Authority of its powers to enforce compliance with the river management plan.

Instead, existing staff from the MDBA and from the office of the Inspector-General of Murray Darling Basin Water Resources will relocate to a new independent authority.

Pitt told ABC News that despite “ruling out additional water buybacks from farmers”, he remained committed to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

“We will be focused on other options in terms of water recovery, we’ll be focused on practical outcomes in terms of river health,” he said.

Read more: Agriculture department had no plan to maximise value for money of Murray-Darling water purchases, audit finds

The buyback policy has been criticised by the Productivity Commission and the Australian ­National Audit Office.

A recent ANAO report found the Agriculture department’s handling of the buybacks scheme was not “fully effective”, and the department “did not develop a framework designed to maximise value for money”.

Meanwhile, a 2019 report from the Productivity Commission argued “the significant risks to implementation [of the Basin Plan] cannot be managed effectively under current institutional and governance arrangements”.

It also called for the MDBA to be split into two separate institutions — the Murray-Darling Basin Agency and the Basin Plan Regulator.

On Wednesday the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists released findings from their investigation into whether federal water reforms have resulted in the flows needed to improve river health.

The research found 20% (320 gigalitres per year) of river water expected under the Basin Plan did not flow in the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin between 2012 and 2019.

Since 2012, flows at 24 of 27 sites were lower than expected even when accounting for climate conditions. Of these, 13 received less than three quarters of the expected flows and three received less than half of the expected flows, the report stated.

“This water should have been available to boost flows in drought stricken rivers, improve water quality, provide habitat for fish, birds and other species, and support the health of internationally recognised wetlands such as the Macquarie Marshes, the Riverland and the Coorong,” Wentworth Group said in a statement.

The researchers noted the findings have come after the Menindee Lakes mass fish kills occurred in the summer of 2018/19, bushfires burnt through the Macquarie Marshes, and the decision by the federal government in 2017 to reduce water recovered for the environment by 70 billion litres from the Darling River and its tributaries.

They estimated the cost to taxpayers for the missing water to be between $700 million and $1.8 billion.

The researchers have listed a number of reasons contributing to the water loss, including changes to rules and protections of environmental water, allowing some environmental water to be lawfully extracted for irrigation, reducing the volume of water remaining in the system, several dry years, illegal extraction, and more.

A key target of the Basin Plan is to recover 450 gigalitres of water by 2024. According to the Water for the Environment Special Account Review, expected to be released on Friday, that target will not be met.

Pitt is also set to release the final report on the Independent Assessment of Social and Economic Conditions in the Basin, led by Robbie Sefton.

Read more: What is the Department of Agriculture’s role in the Murray-Darling? Not even Mick Keelty knows


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