Greens threaten to block Murray-Darling Basin plan changes over water recovery failure

The Greens have threatened to block legislation introduced to parliament on Wednesday to amend the Murray-Darling Basin plan after revelations it would fail to hit its 2024 water recovery targets.

The Murray-Darling Basin plan outlines an amount of water that can be taken from the ailing basin each year while also leaving an environmentally sustainable amount to support local wetlands, rivers and lakes.

To address years of drought and water overallocation to industry, agriculture and communities, the plan aimed to return 450 gigalitres of additional water to the environment by June.

The new legislation will push this deadline to December 2027.

The Greens have threatened to block that legislation and are also calling for an inquiry and more stringent oversight mechanisms to ensure all 450 gigalitres earmarked for the environment are recovered.

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the party wanted to be sure the water would be recovered this time and not “just kick the can down the road”.

“We are willing to work with the government to improve this bill, but in its current state it does not deliver the assurances that South Australia or our river needs.”

“After over a decade of inaction we must see water flowing for the environment before the next election. The river dies from the mouth up which is why the guaranteed delivery of 450GL to the southern basin will help ensure health of the entire river system, ecosystems and economies that rely on it.”

Plibersek said the plan was more necessary than ever with increasingly extreme climate change impacts and drought likely to reduce the basin’s flow by as much as 30% by 2050.

“It can be tempting to push that reality of drought out of our minds, but drought is part of the Australian condition,” she told parliament on Wednesday.

“We can pray for more respite, we can hope for more breathing space. But as long as we live on this continent, it will always be back.”

Plibersek blamed the delay on the previous government, accusing the Coalition of “waging an insidious war” against the plan.

The Coalition blocked water recovery programs, prevented projects from delivering water savings and attempted to cut recovery targets, the environment minister said.

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“With all that stalling and sabotage, it’s now impossible to deliver the plan on the original timeline.”

The new plan also includes more options and funding to deliver the remaining water, such as through voluntary buybacks.

The Nationals leader, David Littleproud, said his party did not support water buybacks, calling them “blunt instruments” and claimed the bill would cause hurt in regional and rural communities.

“This is where ideology isn’t meeting the practical reality,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “It’s the machinery dealer, it’s the plumber, it’s the hairdresser, it’s the cafes that have money ripped out of their economies because water has come out.”

The opposition water spokesperson, Perin Davey, also wants the legislation sent to an inquiry and a committee to visit affected communities.

The Murray-Darling system covers 1m sq km across south-eastern Australia and provides drinking water for roughly 3 million people and some 30 threatened species in the region.

The governments of New South Wales, South Australia, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory all signed up to the new plan, with Victoria the only basin state to oppose it due to the government’s opposition to buybacks.