Pressure is on the states and Murray Darling Basin Authority to ignore traditional tensions in the water market and co-operate for a solution to an unprecedented problem.
A seismic shift to irrigation in the southern Murray Darling Basin has piled pressure on traditional industries like rice and dairy, making the work of policy makers crucial to river communities and the environment.
The boom in permanent horticulture plantations in the lower Murray region is driving up demand for water downstream of the Barmah Choke, which is a natural narrow point in the Murray River and major constraint on trade and river flow.
A report from water market adviser Aither to the Victorian Water Minister, released this week, said increased demand from permanent plantings could drive the price of water so high it would become unaffordable for other commodities in the southern Basin.
Another issue vexing river managers is what's called deliverability - that is how to move water along the river system, while more is lost to evaporation and seepage the longer it travels.
Aither's report will be used by policy makers tasked with balancing the need of upstream and downstream irrigators with those of the environment.
Ministers requested that urgent work be done by the MDBA in conjunction with the states to address River Murray deliverability challenges
The matter has become so pressing that the interstate council Basin state ministers agreed at a meeting in December there was an urgent need to work with the MDBA on a long term solution to the problems caused by demand in the lower Murray.
"Ministers requested that urgent work be done by the MDBA in conjunction with the states to address River Murray deliverability challenges, for both consumptive and environmental water," said the official communique from the ministerial meeting.
The states and the MDBA will report back to each other when they next meet in August.
The decisions of NSW and Victoria won't only impact irrigators in their respective states, but also those in South Australia who rely on water traded in from upstream.
Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville got in early this week, on the back of Aither's findings, and announced a bold move to freeze increased water use in the lower Murray until the water market and trade rules had been reviewed.
NSW Water Minister Melinda Pavey is overseas. In her place NSW Nationals Leader John Barilaro said there are concerns over the volume of environmental flow in the lower Murray, took a swipe at the Murray Darling Basin Authority's collaboration.
- Nut boom can make water unaffordable for other crops
- Victoria freezes water extraction below Barmah Choke
- Calls for moratorium on new water licences
- Orchards eroding irrigation sustainability: SunRice boss
"The old ways of hiding key information from the public before major decisions are made to the way our rivers are operated is no longer acceptable," Mr Barilaro said.
"In the interests of transparency and accountability the NSW Government strongly urges the MDBA to publicly release the reports at least two weeks prior to the next ministerial council meeting to allow all interested parties in NSW to review and have input into our State's position.
"We share similar concerns to those of the Victorian Government, including how regulated environmental flows of up to 80,000 megalitres per day can be delivered to the South Australian border for environmental purposes without causing major third party impacts."
The MDBA said it had developed new modelling, and investigated the factors that affect delivery risks.
Modelling is required to assist the MDBA to inform state governments of likely water availability and impacts on deliverability under various scenarios.
A progress report with recommendations about managing delivery risks next summer, when permanent planting's demand spikes, will be tabled at the next ministerial meeting, the MDBA said in a statement.
This week, Ms Neville said no new licences for extraction will be issued or limit increases granted, unless it can be shown that there will be no increased risks to the environment or entitlement holders.
"Each application needs to be assessed on its merits, but given the issues we have around availability and environmental impact it would be unlikely any new licences would be issued, in that 12 months," Ms Neville said.
"We have to make sure the risks to the environment and Victorian entitlement holders don't increase due to more extractions - that's why I will personally review all licence applications for the next year.
"This action is part of a coordinated push to improve water markets and trade rules in Victoria - including making sure inter-valley trade settings in the Goulburn are appropriate and protect the environment."
The story Can policy makers stop water market going down the gurgler? first appeared on Farm Online.