Just 2.6 gigalitres have been recovered to date through the fund.
Nationals leader David Littleproud was water minister in 2018 when he teamed up with the NSW and Victorian water ministers to strike the agreement, which they said would protect local communities by imposing strict criteria that banned buybacks if an assessment found the loss in irrigation water would have a negative economic impact.
Federal Water Minister Tanya Plibersek accused the former government of hiding the report and claimed it never wanted to deliver water recovery.
“The report shows that under current policy settings, there is virtually no way that the money can be spent in the remaining timeframe,” Plibersek said.
Nationals Water spokesperson Perin Davey rejected Plibersek’s claim, said the socio-economic test was included in the basin plan from the outset, and argued the 2018 rules merely made explicit the plan’s original intention.
“Look up chapter seven,” Davey said. “All the basin plan ministers did in 2018 was agree on the assessment criteria.
“It’s not the Nats’ fault, just ask [former Victorian Water Minister] Lisa Neville. She agreed to it.
“The socio-economic test has to stay, it’s the only thing giving communities certainty they won’t be sold down the river.”
The Wilderness Society urged Plibersek to commit to a “step change” in environmental protection and warned her not to strive for “incremental improvement on what a former government did”.
“The performance of previous governments is woefully inadequate as a benchmark for what we need now. We simply can’t let that historic neglect shape our vision of what is needed,” Tim Beshara, Wilderness Society policy and strategy manager, said.
Greens water spokesperson Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said Plibersek must remove the socio-economic test and immediately re-start voluntary farmer buybacks.
“My message to Minister Plibersek is: go and buy the water,” Hanson-Young said.
“Putting up the white flag is surrendering to big corporate irrigators. The minister has tools in her toolkit de ella to start returning large amounts of water to the system right now.
The 450 gigalitre water recovery plan is part of the $13 billion Murray Darling Basin Plan initiated by the Howard government in 2007, which was designed to recover the equivalent of 3200 gigalitres, following advice from CSIRO that urgent action was needed to address the over-allocation of irrigation entitlements.
More than 2100 gigalitres of water have been recovered under another 2750 gigalitre environmental target.
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