Lovers of the Murray and Darling rivers gathered outside Victorian Parliament on March 7 to call on Premier Daniel Andrews and Water Minister Lisa Neville to save the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s Basin Plan.
In February, Labor and Greens voted in the Senate to block the government’s proposed changes to the Northern Basin Plan, which would have reduced the amount of water being returned to the environment in southern Queensland and northern New South Wales, from 390 gigalitres to 320 gigalitres — a 70-gigalitre decrease.
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young led the campaign to stop that happening, arguing the plan had been plagued by "scandal after scandal".
"There is no way we're going to take more water off the river just to give it to those who have already been too greedy by far," she told the Senate.
Labor's Penny Wong said the party could not support the plan being "wrecked" by the Government.
"We want the Murray-Darling Basin Plan to survive. It is the plan we delivered in government," she said. "But we cannot agree to reducing the volume of water without the proper assurances that the basin will remain healthy."
The Victorian Labor government and the New South Wales Coalition government had both previously threatened to pull out of the plan altogether if the Coalition's changes were blocked.
NSW water minister Niall Blair immediately announced NSW would withdraw completely from the Basin Plan. Victorian water minister Neville slammed the Senate decision, saying it's a "slap in the face" for both irrigating communities and the environment, but she stopped short of pulling out of the plan altogether.
Neville has proposed introducing Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism projects that she says will use water given to the environment more efficiently, leaving more water in the system for industry and communities to use. But these projects are unproven and have been shown to be a risk to the environment.
In May, another critical disallowance motion will decide whether 605 gigalitres can be stripped from the water recovery target in the Southern Murray-Darling Basin.
Rally organiser Jacquie Kelly of Friends of Nyah Vinifera Forest said: “The Murray-Darling Basin Plan took a decade to negotiate. It must be delivered in full and on time.
“Healthy rivers and waterways are vital assets that support a booming tourism sector, recreation and community wellbeing. Cutting targets that deliver real water for our environment will hurt Basin communities in the long term.
“We are demanding the Murray-Darling rivers and wetlands are not sacrificed for the political gain of the government. We want to let the Premier know he must listen to the people.”
Woorinen stone fruit irrigator Peta Thornton said: “Not all irrigators want a watered down plan. Water from our precious rivers has been over-allocated. It’s as simple as that. Minister Neville’s disappointing and short sighted approach will rob future generations of a lovely life on the river.
“The situation with our rivers is a crisis of monumental proportions with the Darling River ceasing to flow and every day a new report of mismanagement, rorting and corruption.”
Wati Wati Traditional Owner Cain Chaplin from Swan Hill said: “The river is like the blood to veins. We are one with the land as well as the water. So without water our culture will no longer survive.”
Friends of the Earth River Country spokesperson Morgana Russell said: “Eight years ago Victorian Labor declared over 200,000ha of River Red Gum National Parks and Reserves, a magnificent legacy. Now it seems they are undermining their own achievement by denying these unique forests and wetlands the regular flooding needed for their survival.
“We are protesting in solidarity with the river community voices that are calling out for a healthy river: with farmers, Traditional Owners, towns people, conservationists and those who recreate on the river.”