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Australia Victoria splits from water minister' pack on commitment to Murray-Darling Basin Plan deadlines

04:41  30 april  2021
04:41  30 april  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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a bridge over a body of water: Basin water ministers have agreed to re-examine a controversial water saving project at Menindee Lakes. (ABC Broken Hill: Andrew Schmidt) © Provided by ABC NEWS Basin water ministers have agreed to re-examine a controversial water saving project at Menindee Lakes. (ABC Broken Hill: Andrew Schmidt)

Federal and state Murray-Darling Basin water ministers have pledged to meet a 2024 deadline for a range of water-saving projects, despite reservations from Victoria.

A Ministerial Council meeting was held on Thursday morning, with ministers agreeing to re-examine two controversial water savings projects at Menindee Lakes and Yanco Creek.

Federal Water Minister Keith Pitt said he had commissioned an independent report into the progress of all projects, known as the  Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism (SDLAM) projects, which are supposed to lower the overall water recovery target by delivering the environmental outcomes equivalent to 605GL of water buybacks.

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That report concluded two-thirds of them were on track to be completed by 2024.

However, in a statement Acting Victorian Water Minister, Richard Wynne said the totality of the projects would not be complete by 2024.

The Basin Plan set strict conditions for the projects, and if just one of the projects remained incomplete in 2024, it considered all of them incomplete, meaning that water would need to be recovered from farmers.

The Federal Government has committed to no further water buybacks, and legislated a cap on them that has yet to be reached.

But Mr Wynne warned that the current, incomplete state of a range of projects risked putting buybacks back on the table for Basin communities.

Mr Wynne told his counterparts 'it is widely recognised that states wouldn't meet the deadline of 2024 to deliver all of the 605GL worth of projects', according to a statement.

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Mr Wynne also called for "legislative flexibility" around the 2024 deadline, but Mr Pitt ruled it out.

"The Commonwealth has no plans to change the timeline," Mr Pitt said.

Menindee, Yanco projects re-examined

The Basin Plan set a Sustainable Diversion Limit, the amount of water in the system that can be used by towns, irrigators and industry, and the SDLAM projects these schemes were designed to deliver environmental outcomes that were equivalent to buying the water fram farmers.

The Productivity Commission has repeatedly warned key projects included in the SDLAM are behind schedule, and in 2019 recommended setting more realistic time frames to get them completed.

One of the projects, which originally involved infrastructure works at the Menindee Lakes designed to make them deeper and reduce the surface area, stalled earlier this year, and was met with significant community resistance.

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Another, the Yanco Creek Offset Project, involved upgrading the Yanco Wier, north of Narrandera.

"There was significant discussion today around the ability to re-scope the Menindee Lakes and Yanco Creek projects," Mr Pitt told the ABC.

Mr Pitt said ministers agreed to re-examine the projects, and a report into their new scope will be published in two months.

Ministers also agreed to more Commonwealth funding for NSW to "accelerate five projects that will deliver 45GL by 2024".

Constraints still lagging

One of the most important projects, Constraints Management, aims to allow larger volumes of water to flow through the southern connected system, by raising low-lying bridges and most importantly, negotiating easements with landholders that would be affected by temporary flooding on their property.

Negotiations with an estimated 3,000 potentially impacted landholders have barely started, as highlighted by the Productivity Commission.

Much of that work must take place with NSW landholders.

Mr Pitt recognised their complexity but said he was focussed "on what we were getting done", while reiterating the government had no plan to change the 2024 deadline.

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