NATIONAL Party Leader and Queensland Senator Barnaby Joyce is threatening to derail the Murray Darling Basin Plan after confirming the Coalition wants to cap irrigation water buybacks at 1500 gigalitres.
Speaking at a conference in Melbourne last week, the Coalition water spokesperson claimed the Federal Government had favoured environmental water buybacks from irrigators because it was the cheapest way to return water to the system.
"They typically cost about $2000 a megalitre, whereas infrastructure investment can cost anywhere from $2000-$5000/mL," he said.
"So far, Labor has invested just 10 per cent of the funds available for water infrastructure investment.
"In contrast, it has spent 70pc of the funds available to buy back water.
"It will reduce food production and mean fewer jobs and economic development in regional towns."
Mr Joyce wants the government to "face up to" costs and make water returns from infrastructure investment a priority.
This is despite admitting the government is also targeting 1500gL in buybacks from the required 2750gL, to be taken from agricultural production during the next 10 years as part of the MDBP.
"It's just that the Labor Party, unlike the Coalition, will not commit to this target," Mr Joyce said.
"We believe that a cap on buybacks will provide the 2.1 million people who live in the MDB the certainty to get on and plan for their futures."
The Coalition tried to move amendments to the plan last year to insert a cap but it was rejected by the Government as well as independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott.
Federal Water Minister Tony Burke said the Coalition's persistence was sending the wrong message to upstream states.
"The reason for not capping buybacks is the threat of buyback guarantees that the states will put forward good quality projects," Mr Burke said.
"If the threat of buybacks is completely off the table, how on earth can Sen Joyce guarantee that the projects from the states will bridge the gap?"
It was a high-risk gamble to expect states to commit to projects without requiring an incentive to do so and it was a "recipe to undermine the plan".
"If the gap isn't bridged through projects or through buyback, then I don't see how the requirements of the plan and the outcome SA has fought for can ever be achieved," Mr Burke said.
He challenged the SA Liberal Party to "stand up" to the Qld Nationals.
SA Liberals spokesperson Michelle Lensink said she shared Mr Joyce's concerns about the impact of buybacks on irrigation communities, but said there needed to be some flexibility in the system. Every state and irrigation community was different.
"There's potentially danger in having caps as that does add a system of rules that might work against the overall intent of getting more water for environmental purposes, and trying to treat regional communities on an equitable basis," Ms Lensink said.
SA Water Minister Ian Hunter said Mr Joyce and the Coalition represented the biggest risk to the MDBP, which was signed into law in November.
But SA has still not signed an intergovernmental agreement between the basin states and the Federal Government on funding frameworks to bring the MDBP into effect.
Only Victoria and Canberra have signed, while SA, New South Wales and Queensland are still considering it.
It includes an agreement to collaborate on environmental water management and to support the Federal Government's commitment to 'bridge the gap' between water recovered for the environment (about 1577gL from buybacks, infrastructure investments and state programs so far) and the target of 2750gL, by 2019.
Signing or not signing the intergovernmental agreement would not affect the obligations of basin states under the MDBP, but if they refused they would not receive Federal Government funding for costs. Mr Hunter said the government expected to sign-up to the plan in the next few weeks.
"We are finalising details of funding agreements with the Commonwealth, at which stage we will then be in a position to formally sign-up to the plan," he said.
*Full report in Stock Journal, June 20 issue, 2013.