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Key Water Blog

National Irrigators’ Council 7th Feb 2020

CEO Comment 

Although we are disappointed to lose David Littleproud as Water Minister we welcome, and congratulate, Keith Pitt,on his appointment to the portfolio and to cabinet.  Keith Pitt is well known to some of our Queensland members.  He is Bundaberg’s local member so has been working for some years with Dale and the team at Bundaberg Regional Irrigators Group on industry issues, particularly energy issues.

We look forward to working with the new Minister.

In our media statement released yesterday I said “water minister is a very difficult job and can be a delicate task trying to achieve outcomes that balance the needs of the environment and communities, and for Australia’s capacity to continue to produce food and fibre.

That is particularly the case in a Murray Darling Basin so severely impacted by drought and years of water reform.

Australia’s irrigators produced $17.7 billion worth of crops in 2017-18.  Without them Australians’ would not have fresh vegetables, fruit, nuts or Australian wine in the shops; we would be importing dairy products and we would have thousands of jobs less in rural communities without the cotton and sugar irrigation helps to grow.

NIC looks forward to working with the new Minister as he makes his contribution to water policy nationally and, in particular, the challenges around the implementation of the remaining elements of the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

Former Minister Littleproud has managed those challenges in a considered and balanced way, and importantly he worked hard to maintain the bi-partisanship approach to the Plan in Federal Parliament.  We thank him for that and look forward to the new Minister continuing to look to outcomes that serve the longer-term needs of achieving a stable triple bottom line outcome.

Irrigators recognise that the Minister can’t do everything we want, but we remain committed to being a positive part of the process.

We also congratulate Deputy Nationals leader, the Hon David Littleproud, on returning to the Agriculture portfolio and look forward to working with him in that role.”

I know I am starting to sound like a broken record on this, but I would urge Minister Pitt to use the recommendations from the Productivity Commission’s five-year review as his basis for action on the Basin Plan.

On that vein I have noted the NSW and Victorian independent review of constraints modelling.  Even though that review was not supported by all Ministers it seems to me that it is absolutely consistent with what the Productivity Commission recommended.  It highlights once again the need for adaptive processes and more flexible time frames if genuine outcomes are to be achieved.

Its also interesting to think back to the criticism of the Federal Department by the (then) Northern Basin Commissioner, and the Productivity Commission, which boiled down to suggesting that the adversarial approach, where the Department tries to get actions by withholding funds from State Governments, wasn’t all that helpful.

In recent days, we have heard that the Federal Government is going to withhold funds from NSW because they have not completed the Water Resources Plans.  Now I am not going to suggest there is not issues on all sides of that problem, but I fail to see how stopping funding for vital work, including on how we measure and regulate floodplain harvesting, for example, helps us in the longer term to get positive results.

Both sides of that argument need to sit down and come up with solutions, not more barriers.

Finally, I’m looking forward to seeing our members at our meeting in Canberra on the 20th of February.  As usual plenty to talk about.

Best wishes
Steve Whan


 ONE Basin CRC Bid

One of the constant things I’ve heard in the three years I’ve been in this job is that we need more independent research on the Murray Darling Basin.

That’s why I’ve been very interested to hear about the ‘ONE Basin CRC’ proposal, to be submitted to the Commonwealth government’s Cooperative Research Centre Program in June.

The team preparing the bid includes The University of Melbourne, University of Southern Queensland, The Goyder Institute (a peak body for the three South Australian Universities) and Australia National University. The bid lead is Prof Mike Stewardson from University of Melbourne. The proposal focusses R&D in five regional hubs across the basin including Riverland, Mallee, Goulburn/Central Murray, Mid-Basin and Northern Basin and working with existing R&D capabilities in these regions. Although research activity is focused in the Murray-Darling, research outputs will be applicable more broadly across Australia.

Over the next few weeks the bid group is holding ‘road shows’ for potential partners in Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney and Gooniwindi. 

The proposal includes three Research programs. The Water Solutions Program will develop infrastructure and technology solutions that provide new sources of water and improve efficiency of water delivery and use. The Adaptation Solutions Program will co-design services and strategies to support adaptation across the basin with changing market pressures, water availability and technologies. The Basin Foresight Program will improve our understanding of basin trajectories and support robust decisions by agribusiness that manages climate, water and other risks. The ONE Basin CRC is also looking to provide scientific review, advice, and constructive public commentary on water management issues.

The NIC Climate Change Position Statement, released last year says that “The success of agricultural businesses depends on the capacity of the sector to continue to innovate and adapt, using best practice to manage climatic risks and securing investment for the future. …. The sector needs the skills, access to information and advice and incentives to make changes.” A strong water R&D capability is an important foundation for this. However, we haven’t seen the sort of investment in research since the CRC for Irrigation Futures which ended in 2010.

It seems to me there is potential for this new proposal to improve the situation.

The CRC bid team are looking for partners in the CRC. For the bid to be competitive, the industry needs to contribute to the proposal development and commit to cash and in-kind contributions. There will be a series of Road Shows on the CRC in coming weeks. If you want to attend one of these or learn more about the CRC, please email The prospectus is available from

NSW/Vic Independent Constraints Modelling report

I’ve had the opportunity to have a look at the independent report the NSW and Victorian Governments presented to Basin Ministers in December on constraints modelling.

There’s a link to the report here: NSW / Vic Constraints modelling report

I said at the time they announced this report would be commissioned, that I felt it was entirely consistent with the recommendations from the Productivity Commission and it was unfortunate other Governments didn’t support it.  It seems to me, it provides very useful input and it should very strongly highlight the need to act on the five-year review recommendations around the timeframes and processes for implementation.

In a series of submissions over the last 18 months NIC has said that we are not on track to be able to deliver the SDLAM projects or be capable of delivering the water supposed to be returned via up-water measures.  This report presents that delivery problem quite clearly with its comment that: “flows of 80,000ML/d at the South Australian border will occur when there is a coincidence of large rainfall and ‘natural’ flow events in the Murray or its key tributaries, but river operators will not be creating ‘managed’ 80,000 ML/d flows at the South Australian border.”

The report is just the latest to show clearly why we must move to focusing on achieving environmental outcomes with projects that are flexible, ‘adaptive’ and that recognise that more time is likely to be needed rather than just focusing on flow targets and fixed dates.

The report’s authors say “… over time it would appear that more weight has progressively been given to achieving SDL offsets by the due date, relative to maximising benefits over time. Affected communities have had little say in identifying potential impacts and solutions and evaluating trade-offs.”

I am aware that South Australia opposed doing this report but it seems to me they are heading toward a very simple choice, if there isn’t flexibility shown then they will might end up with the Commonwealth buying more water but being physically unable to achieve the environmental outcomes outlined in the Plan, let alone the ‘schedule 5’ outcomes.

One part of the report I wanted to highlight says:
“The original CMS timetable is more than three years behind schedule. Much more than modelling needs to be done to restore community confidence, over and above the work done already to improve modelling. But it is most unlikely that effective engagement could occur while the current severe drought persists.
The Panel considers that applying an adaptive management approach to progressively relax river operating constraints will provide the opportunity for immediate benefits and has the best chance of achieving the lasting environmental benefits specified in the Basin Plan. The objective of the adaptive management approach would be to build the necessary community support for the constraints measures through the co-design process required by the Ministerial Council.
The approach should be based on well managed trials, with a clear impact-assessment process. The trials of higher flow events would be conducted on discrete sections of rivers, not on the whole system. They would be done at known channel constrictions that involve landholders that are constraining beneficial environmental watering. Enduring landholder agreements would be finalised after the trials were completed, not before.
This approach would enable:

  • landholders to see and assess first-hand the effects of intended inundation on their properties and businesses, with the confidence that the cost of the impacts would be promptly recognised
  • river operators to build the new skills and capabilities required to release overbank flows
  • environmental manager to effectively engage with landholders and the broader community to demonstrate environmental benefits
  • local operational rules to be developed and refined to manage local benefits and costs.

The approach is consistent with the co-design principles and would start to address community concerns. However, it will only be effective if it is acknowledged that the process cannot be rushed and may result in communities recommending flow rates that are less than the notified flow rates, thereby reducing the volume of the SDL offsets.
A constraints program applying this adaptive management approach would be a constructive step forward. It would lead to improvements in model development and a better understanding of the benefits and costs of inundation.”

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