NSW Nationals demand changes to Murray-Darling plan or state will pull out

Anne Davies and Paul Karp
Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

The leader of the New South Wales Nationals, John Barilaro, and the water minister, Melinda Pavey, have demanded a major rewrite of the Murray-Darling Basin plan, including that the state be excused from recovering further water for the environment, or the state will pull out.

With a drought wreaking havoc on rural economies, particularly in NSW, the two Nationals ministers have upped the ante and set out a list of demands including that evaporation losses count toward water for the environment.

Responding to mounting pressure, the federal water resources minister, David Littleproud, announced a new review of water sharing by the interim inspector general of Murray-Darling Basin water resources, Mick Keelty.

Littleproud told reporters in Canberra the snap three-month inquiry into the southern basin of the Murray-Darling would “take the politics out” of the issue but stressed that he had not promised farmers extra water and water allocations were “a matter for the states”.

Related: John Barilaro’s ‘people before the environment’ plan puts politics before the Murray-Darling

The NSW ministers also want a pause on the timetable for new water resource plans until the drought breaks. NSW is one of the laggard states in developing these new rules on water sharing.

These plans set out how water will be shared between classes of licence holders, the environment and Indigenous people along the river system. The current water sharing arrangements for the Barwon-Darling have been blamed by several scientific reports for the fish kills at Menindee last summer and the extended drying of the lower Darling River.

NSW’s demands, if agreed, to would effectively undermine the objectives of the plan.

Just over 2,000GL of the target of 2,750GL has been recovered so far, but the last portion is proving extremely difficult.

Barilaro refused to say whether his demands had backing from the premier, Gladys Berejiklian, or had been approved by cabinet.

Berejiklian recommitted NSW to the Murray-Darling Basin plan at the August meeting of the Council of Australian Governments.

The ministers’ demands come after southern NSW irrigators rallied in Canberra on Monday demanding the plan be scrapped.

Organiser Carly Marriott told Guardian Australia that “environmental water is not an out-and-out good thing” but rather is a piece of “branding” used to persuade the public.

“They’re banking on ignorance. They’re banking on the urban voter to think the government is doing what is right for the environment when in actual fact they punch that much water down a natural waterway to deliver on things ... that don’t need to happen.”

David Littleproud, left, with the Murray-Darling Basin inspector general Mick Keelty at a press conference in Parliament House. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

At a meeting on Monday Littleproud agreed to extend powers to Keelty to investigate the impact of changing distribution of in-flows to the southern basin on state shares under the plan.

The proposal will be put to the ministerial council on 17 December, with Keelty to report back by 31 March.

On Tuesday Littleproud also snapped back at the NSW ministers’ demands, providing “a little bit of education” to them that “the federal government does not approve or decline demands in the Murray-Darling Basin”.

“That is done by all basin states who work together in cooperation … that is not a question for the federal government,” he told reporters.

Littleproud said the federal government “does not have those powers” and described his role instead as one of “herding cats”.

Farmers in the Riverina and the Goulburn Valley are doing it particularly tough as the allocations for less reliable water entitlements have been slashed and prices for high security water have skyrocketed.

Many dairy farmers and rice growers sold their high security water entitlements during water buybacks last decade to reclaim water for environmental flows.

Barilaro said NSW has no more water to give.

“We simply can no longer stand by the Murray-Darling Basin plan in its current form, the plan needs to work for us, not against us,” Barilaro said.

“It is clear our communities in regional NSW have had enough, and today we stand with them.

“NSW is being crippled by the worst drought on record and our future is at risk. The plan should be flexible, adaptive and needs to produce good environmental outcomes for this state.

“I refuse to let regional communities die while we wash productive water into the Great Australian Bight, 1,000km away.

As well as being excused from NSW’s 450GL remaining water recovery target, Barilaro and Pavey also called for the barrages to be removed from lakes in South Australia to allow saltwater back in.

It also wants transmission losses in the Murray-Darling Basin to count towards water returned to the environment.

Evaporation and losses through water seeping into the ground are affected by rainfall, temperatures, winds and the dryness of the soil. In droughts the losses in conveying water down the Murray-Darling river system skyrocket. According to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority these losses were expected to reach 1,000GL for the 2018-19 year .

Related: The only thing as certain as drought in Australia is the stupid call to build new dams | Maryanne Slattery

Pavey said the MDBP was never intended to be an unaltered, static document.

“The regional communities in NSW are being sold up the river by the commonwealth and South Australia is holding every other state to ransom,” Pavey said.

“NSW has already done the heavy lifting and our communities are suffering as a result. South Australian lower lakes are full while NSW communities are dry.

The barrages were constructed in the 1930s to stop seawater flowing back up the Murray. While this happened naturally, the reduced flows in the Murray due to irrigation in NSW and Victoria meant flushing of the lakes became inadequate.

In the 1970s and 1980s salinity was identified as a major threat to the environment and drinking water quality in South Australia.

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority has responsibility for the overall management of the river system, but states are responsible for enforcement and detailed water sharing arrangements.

The plan was tweaked in 2018 to reduce some of the water recovery targets in the northern basin, and put more emphasis on efficiency projects as a way of achieving environmental outcomes.

Comment has been sought from the federal government and the MDBA.