An independent government review has found that 450 GL of water meant for the environment of the Murray-Darling Basin will not be recovered by the 2024 deadline.

The report, the Second Review of the Water for the Environment Special Account (PDF), finds that it is not possible to reach the 450 GL target through the current efficiency measures program even if the time and budget limits were removed. 

In fact, the current program will only be able to return around 60GL. 

The report shows that despite all efforts, the Murray-Darling efficiency program is incapable of returning sufficient water, comes at a higher cost than buy-backs, reduces the flexibility needed to adapt to a changing climate, has the capacity to increase farm debt, and

locks new irrigators out of the market.

Experts say it was a political decision by previous governments to spend over $7 billion on efficiency when the evidence showed that if they wanted rural growth, that the money was better spent elsewhere.  

“This report reflects a lack of political and agency will to recover environmental water,” says Professor Richard Kingsford - Director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science at UNSW Sydney and member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists. 

“Clearly, there is currently limited opportunity in the time frame to realise the 450GL per year water recovery target, underlined by the fact that water recovery for the original target of 2750 GL per year still remains to be achieved.  

“In the meantime, we have experienced fish kills and many of our major wetland systems continue to degrade, despite the values of recent flooding. 

“First Nations peoples, river communities and many that rely on healthy rivers have borne the costs.  

“This problem is compounded by the increasing effects of climate change reducing water availability, theft of water, and policy and practices such as floodplain harvesting and increased dams which are reducing the overall amount of water for healthy rivers.  

“Constraints’ projects have been bogged down in issues related to individuals and their potential to benefit from payments for environmental flow flooding. Many of these areas are part of the floodplain and flood naturally.

“The major efficiency projects are increasingly exposed for their inadequacy, simply resulting in the movement of environmental water from one part of the basin to the other at significant cost.  

“One of the most critical aspects which is not covered in this report is the information on actual water recovery.

“There is a real need to independently audit how much water has actually been recovered for the environment, while accounting for water that would have flowed back into the environment through seepage and return flows,” he said.