Senate backs MDBP shift
A Senate inquiry has given its support to the federal government's proposed changes to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
The report backs what the government sees as a need for amendments to enhance transparency and accountability.
However, the Senate Environment and Communications Committee's report advocates for adjustments in key areas.
The proposed Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill extends the deadline for state-run projects offsetting environmental water recovery from basin irrigators. It allows more time to recover the additional 450 gigalitres of environmental water and broadens the federal government's authority to directly purchase water from irrigators to meet the basin plan's targets.
The Senate committee recommends amendments to tighten the oversight of state-managed offset projects and the federal government's support for communities affected by water buybacks.
The report calls for increased funding for First Nations communities in the basin and emphasises the importance of their participation.
While the bill passed the lower house without amendments, the Senate committee's report suggests modifications, particularly in managing offset projects and community support.
Regarding the ongoing projects, the committee recommends scrapping unviable ones and prohibiting new projects, aligning with concerns raised by the Greens.
The report acknowledges the urgency of water recovery but stresses the need for careful project selection.
The inquiry endorses the long-standing approach of the basin plan, focusing on water recovery targets and the resulting environmental benefits.
However, Coalition senators, in a dissenting report, argue that sufficient water for the environment has already been recovered. They propose addressing specific issues, such as cold-water pollution and fish ladders, for greater environmental outcomes.
In terms of water buybacks, the committee acknowledges the negative social and economic impacts on communities but supports their cost-effectiveness as a recovery tool.
Coalition senators dissent, recommending maintaining the existing 1,500GL cap on buybacks and a socio-economic neutrality test.
The report also addresses the call for increased incorporation of First Nations values in basin water management. It recommends including principles from the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the water act and suggests additional funding for programs supporting Indigenous Australians economically and culturally.
Separately, a group of over 50 legal practitioners and academics has urged federal parliamentarians to ensure that pending changes to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan genuinely incorporate First Nations' aspirations and values.
They criticise the persistent failure to safeguard First Nations' water rights and call for explicit recognition in the amendments.
With the federal government's basin plan amendments set for debate in the Senate, the letter outlines options to break the cycle of discriminatory water reforms and advocates for the inclusion of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the Water Act.