Amendment to the Basin Plan

Amendment to the Basin Plan
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Mr JOYCE (New EnglandDeputy Prime Minister and Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources) (10:58): I present the explanatory memorandum to this bill and move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The Australian government is committed to implementing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in ways that deliver the best social, economic and environmental outcomes for the basin and its many industries and communities. Water is essential to our agricultural production and the associated wealth that it supports in regional communities and the nation. The Water Legislation Amendment (Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment) Bill 2016 provides more time for the basin jurisdictions to work together to maximise the benefits of the sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism, a key element of the basin reforms. This will ensure that we get the reforms right. It will ensure the reforms are equitable and that they support the health of our valuable rivers, while also ensuring the community and industries that rely on the rivers flourish into the future.

In 2012, the Basin Plan set out sustainable diversion limits at both basin-wide and individual catchment scale. At the time, the sustainable diversion limits represented the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s best judgement of a triple bottom-line balance between healthy rivers and strong communities and a prosperous basin economy.

Before the Basin Plan was finalised, Basin water ministers requested that the Basin Plan include a mechanism to allow flexibility in setting the sustainable diversion limits in ways that further enhance social, economic and environmental outcomes. As a result, the sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism was incorporated into the plan to enable the Basin-wide sustainable diversion limit for surface water of 10,873 gigalitres per year to be changed by up to five per cent.

These adjustments can be achieved through two types of measures: supply measures and efficiency measures. Supply measures are projects that enable environmental outcomes equivalent to those in the Basin Plan to be achieved using less environmental water. The bigger the supply contribution from the sustainable diversion limit adjustments, the smaller the remaining amount of water that needs to be recovered. Efficiency measures, on the other hand, are intended to enhance Basin Plan environmental outcomes through infrastructure projects that recover more environmental water without adverse socioeconomic impacts.

Basin states are looking at options for easing river bottlenecks that limit how much water can flow through the system at any one time, in order to achieve the Basin Plan environmental outcomes with less water. Basin state governments are continuing to work through the feasibility of these projects with landholders to ensure that any adverse third-party impacts can be avoided or otherwise mitigated to the satisfaction of landholders and communities. I was happy, recently, to travel to southern New South Wales and northern Victoria to examine some of these issues.

On 5 May 2016, Basin governments reached a major Basin Plan milestone by formally notifying the Murray-Darling Basin Authority of 36 supply and efficiency measures for consideration under the sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism. The notified package is intended to improve the social, economic and environmental outcomes of the Basin Plan. The authority is now modelling the effect of these supply measures to determine how they will affect the sustainable diversion limits. While notification of this package of measures was a significant step, Basin governments think that more can be done. This bill will enable us to do that.

The bill amends the Basin Plan to allow states to notify a second package of sustainable diversion limit adjustment measures by 30 June 2017. This provides additional time for Basin jurisdictions to work up new projects that augment the first package of measures. In setting this timeframe, the Australian government is conscious that Basin governments are considering the potential for complementary measures, such as measures to control carp and boost native fish populations, to be considered under the sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism. There is potential for significant environmental outcomes to be achieved through measures other than simply adding more water. Should Basin governments agree to proceed in this way, the timeframe set out in this bill will be sufficient for the development of such measures by Basin jurisdictions and for the subsequent assessment of these measures by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

Of course, when undertaking reform as critical as the Basin Plan, timing is critical. The Basin Plan sustainable diversion limits are to come into effect from 1 July 2019. To achieve this, accredited water resource plans need to be in place, and remaining water recovery targets need to be met. These processes all take time, and certainty on the adjustment of sustainable diversion limits is required as early as possible. Therefore, while it is important to allow more time to get the most out of adjustment mechanisms, it is also imperative that Basin jurisdictions are afforded the time and certainty they need to complete their water resources plans by 2019.

For this reason, the bill requires that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority present its determination of a proposed sustainable diversion limit adjustment to the Commonwealth minister by 15 December 2017. A determination deadline of 15 December 2017 will ensure that the adjustment operates in sufficient time to provide certainty for those key processes that depend on a timely outcome from the adjustment mechanism. To meet this deadline, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority will need to impose cut-off dates for project amendments well beforehand. However, the Australian government remains confident that all Basin jurisdictions will continue to work cooperatively, and with the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, in securing the best possible outcome.

To ensure Basin jurisdictions are able to develop a suite of further projects by 30 June 2017, they must have certainty that the second notification will occur. This bill expedites the amendment process in sufficient time to provide this certainty. This bill continues the government’s commitment to sensible and considered water reform. It strikes the appropriate balance between providing more time to deliver the best possible outcomes for the adjustment mechanism and, at the same time, achieving the best possible outcomes for Basin industries, for Basin communities and for healthy, working Basin rivers.

The Australian government is determined to implement the Basin Plan in a manner that ensures the social and economic wellbeing of our Basin communities while achieving environmental objectives. Farmers are the primary environmental stewards of the land, and no-one knows the creeks, rivers, wetlands and flood plains of the Basin better than those communities that call the Basin home. It is vital that we work with them to ensure the sustainable use of water resources into the future.

This is an issue that I have lived with all my life, having lived in the Basin all my life. It is vitally important that we understand that the people we talk to about these issues are not just the farmers who own the water licences but are also the towns and the townspeople who rely on an agricultural irrigation community and expect us to do the very best job. It is these people more than any other group who would be affected if we get this wrong, because these are the people who are not able to sell their assets and do not get the chance to move anywhere—they are just left with our problems if we get it wrong.

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