Federal takeover looms as NSW fails to complete river plans

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Millions of dollars in funding for regional water projects are being withheld by the Commonwealth because the Berejiklian government has failed to complete basic Murray-Darling river management plans more than six months after they were due.

Correspondence from federal Water Resources Minister David Littleproud delivered over the weekend and obtained by the Herald also shows the Morrison government has formally begun the process to take control of river management planning in parts of the Murray Darling Basin.

The river management documents, known as water resource plans, set rules about how much water can be taken from the critical river system for irrigation and other purposes and were due to be lodged with the independent Murray Darling Basin Authority last July.

20180225-reservoir-ozThe drought gripping much of the state, the worst on record, has had a serious impact on the Murray Darling Basin, killing more than a million fish and leaving parts of the river system labelled an “ecosystem in crisis” by the state’s Natural Resources Commission.

The reopening of hostilities between the Commonwealth and the Berejiklian government, exacerbated last year after Deputy Premier John Barilaro threatened to walk away from the Murray Darling Basin Plan altogether, puts at risk several major regional water projects.

“I am disappointed these plans were not able to be submitted by the end of last year, given the many years over which New South Wales has had to develop these plans and that the Commonwealth [extended] the deadline for submission,” Mr Littleproud wrote to Water Minister Melinda Pavey.

“It is not my intention to approve Commonwealth expenditure to New South Wales related to the Basin Plan until there is demonstrated progress on water resource plans.

“This includes the additional funding of $7.9 million in relation to the extension of the development of the New South Wales Floodplain Harvesting Policy which was contingent on satisfactory delivery of New South Wales WRPs by 31 December 2019.

“However, I consider the lodgement of a number of less sensitive WRPs as soon as possible may provide me with some confidence in respect to New South Wales’ ongoing commitment to Basin Plan implementation … the delivery of these overdue plans will assist me to consider progressing payments to New South Wales currently at risk,” the letter reads.

There is $48 million in funding for projects including new metering, floodplain harvesting and construction of fishways to prevent further mass fish kills ready to be distributed by the federal government which is on hold because the WRPs have not been finalised, federal departmental sources who were not authorised to provide official comment told the Herald.

But there is more than $1.05 billion in funding at stake if the state government fails to lodge the water resource plans with the Murray Darling Basin Authority by Mr Littleproud’s new deadline of April 30, including buy-back of high-security water licenses.

Mr Littleproud declined to comment.

1518840305754“We have been in discussions with Mr Littleproud’s office and we have explained because of the extremity of the drought, we will deliver [the water resource plans] mid-way through the year,” Ms Pavey told the Herald on Sunday. “Our communities need to see these before they are formally submitted as they are integral to their success and a key part of their progression.”

NSW Irrigators’ Council chief executive Luke Simpkins said consultation on the new plans, run by the state’s Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, had been “fairly ordinary”.

“Everyone wants the rules to be very clear … there have been a handful of times where people have been charged, but there are 12,000 licence holders across the state using water for irrigation purposes. We’re a very law abiding group of people, so we just want a fair deal,” he said.

Mr Littleproud’s letter gives Ms Pavey two weeks to respond.

“If New South Wales fails to give a proposed WRP to the Authority by 30 April 2020 for one or more of the 20 WRP areas, then I may issue a formal notice [for the Commonwealth to step in and complete the water resource plans],” the letter reads.

The Herald on December 8 revealed state cabinet documents warned eight of the 20 water resource plans were unlikely to be completed “resulting in non-payment … of $16 million”.

Mr Barilaro has in the past said the plans, which set rules about how much water can be taken out of the system so there is enough left to ensure sensitive environments such as the floodplains are not compromised, should be delayed until the drought had broken.

Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 26 January 2020.