Amendments to the updated Murray Darling Basin (MDB) plan spearheaded independent senator David Van have won praise from MDB communities.
Senator Van won some concessions from the government regarding its hardline stance on allowing more buybacks within the MDB, most notably the inclusion of a provision allowing water leasebacks, rather than buybacks.
Murray River Group of Councils (MRGC) acting chair Tony Marwood, based in the Campaspe Shire in northern Victoria, said while his group still opposed the changes to the bil forced through by the government with crossbench and Greens support, Senator Van's amendments were a small win for river communities.0
"Although I'm disappointed that water buybacks remained in the Bill and the cap on buybacks was removed, there were some concessions for our communities as a result of amendments introduced by Senator Van," Cr Marwood said.
"For instance, the inclusion of water leasing options for water recovery by the Commonwealth will give irrigation farmers more flexibility in deciding what best suits their operational needs and personal circumstances," he said.
Under the new rules, MDB farmers will have the choice of whether to sell their water entitlement as part of a buyback, lease water to the Commonwealth, or sell their entitlement and lease it back from the Commonwealth leasebacks, a move which Cr Marwood said was good for farm flexibility.
Meanwhile, the MRGC has reignited debate about whether the burden of finding additional environmental water was distributed evenly across the entire MDB, with Cr Marwood calling on government to look to northern regions to find initial water savings.
"While these leasing options will give farmers some choice, we believe that any water recovery efforts should be focused on the northern basin in the first instance."
He based his calls on analysis conducted by Basin Plan assessors.
"The Basin Plan 2020 evaluation assessment of outcomes found hydrology and ecology to be stable or improved in the Southern Basin but had declined in the Northern Basin due to a drying climate and lack of held environmental water."
"We urge the Commonwealth to concentrate on lifting the health status of the environment in the Northern Basin as the first priority."
Cr Marwood said his group was pleased to see the socio-economic impact test retained, after it was not part of the original government amendments to the bill.
"The Bill's passing with an amendment that requires the government to conduct socio-economic impact assessments of any water purchase program and that these must be reported on annually, aligns with our position."
"However, it is critical that the socio-economic impact assessment process is thorough and robust, including consulting with stakeholders, to enable a comprehensive evaluation of any water purchase program and detailed reporting to the public."
He said the devil would be in the detail as to whether the socio-economic impact test was doing its job in the event of widespread buybacks.
"If water buybacks do occur across the Basin, we hope that there is genuine and deep engagement between the Australian Government and Basin communities on compensatory adjustment packages, and that local councils are an integral part of this process as we know our communities best."
"We also urge the government to ensure that any compensation happens in a timely manner and that the process does not pit one community against another."