The National Irrigators Council (NIC) has welcomed the release of the Productivity Commission’s final report on the National Water Initiative (NWI), recognising that it will form the basis for an examination of Australia’s future water security challenges now and into the future.

NIC CEO, Isaac Jeffrey said: “The Commission’s report sets out a process for a renewed NWI against the backdrop of Australia’s highly variable rainfall patterns and forecasts of reduced inflows into river systems over coming decades.

“As part of the process to progress national water reform, NIC will work to ensure that a renewed NWI is fit for purpose to enable the irrigated agriculture sector to play an important role in continuing to produce food and fibre against the pressures of climate change and the opportunities presented with projected world population growth. Under the NWI, productive water is already the lowest priority, coming in behind the environment.

“With the global demand for food and fibre increasing and recognising that the world population forecast will exceed 9 billion by 2050, Australia is well positioned to be at the forefront of this global demand, including taking up the opportunities this presents.

“The future prospects for irrigated agriculture in Australia are strong. This is not without challenges for the sector as part of its responsibility in meeting the climate change task and meeting community expectation to reduce emissions, while participating in the broader effort to contribute to global action.

“The increasing demand for food and fibre and the challenge of declining water availability is driving increases in the efficiency of irrigated agriculture, enabling more water-efficient crop varieties, more precise application of water, technology enabling improved farm management practices, infrastructure and river management.

“NIC has engaged constructively with the Commission during the inquiry’s consultation to ensure the issues and challenges faced by the productive agriculture sector are heard and understood.

“The sector remains committed to a genuine triple bottom line outcome from water reform. It must be recognised however, that no reforms, whether NWI or Basin Plan, can in fact drought proof a system.

“Pleasingly, the Commission recommends embedding key principles in a renewed NWI including: committing to adaptive management; establishing a clear process for reviewing progress on environmental outcomes; independently auditing the adequacy and use of environmental water entitlements every three years; and, integrating management of environmental water and complementary natural resource management.

“NIC has long advocated a genuine focus on complementary natural resource management, or non-flow measures. The Commission’s own Five Yearly review of the Basin Plan endorsed the importance of complementary natural resource planning and management frameworks, and we continue to emphasise the importance of integration of measures that deliver improved environmental outcomes.

“This approach reflects the principle that simply meeting flow targets cannot alone deliver environmental outcomes; embedding complementary measures as part of water reform represents greater innovation through these types of interventions to improve riparian management and to support our river systems and fish habitat.

“We are now seeing a shift in focus towards this approach in Government programs like the Northern Basin Toolkit projects and the Murray Darling Healthy Rivers Program, delivering projects like: improved management of creeks and floodplains; implementing erosion mitigation and biodiversity measures along creeks; revegetation along waterways; protecting vulnerable floodplain and riverine landscapes from feral pigs; improving native fish habitat and breeding sites and restocking river systems with native fish.

“The Commission has recognised that administrative processes and decisions that affect water availability (and therefore market dynamics) would benefit from increased transparency, and these include seasonal announcements around water allocations, information on carryover policies and reporting on conveyance losses and delivery impacts.

“These issues represent ongoing problems in the system and NIC will continue to work to ensure that they are fixed, to the extent that they reflect fairness and transparency so that there is rightful delivery of water to entitlement holders without incurring third party impacts.

“Recognising the importance of Australian Government investment in major water infrastructure, the Commission recommends the National Water Grid Authority should broaden its Investment Policy Framework to allow funding for all projects where government involvement may be warranted, including supporting access to essential town water supplies in regional and remote

“NIC highlighted with the Commission the raft of opportunities to secure water supply through the National Water Grid Authority, including working strategically with regions where towns, during periods of drought, have faced water supply risk. We suggested this could be embedded as part of a region’s broader planning objectives, including local government playing a key role along with
agriculture industries and local/regional business enterprise organisations.

“Through the process of national water reform, the productive sector has been called upon to ‘do more with less’ and it will not be an acceptable outcome where agriculture sector entitlement holders are required to solely bear the risk of climate change. There must be equitable distribution of the burden in response to climate related pressures, with other water users being subject to the same standards of efficiency as the productive sector.

“During consultation with the Commission, we stressed that water property rights should not be diminished by planning processes and that the allocation of risk is appropriately spread. Without property rights being recognised, there is no NWI or any basis for water recovery.

“NIC agrees that strengthened governance arrangements must enable the National Water Reform Committee to come together periodically to oversee development of a renewed NWI. We have previously highlighted that the Committee must be visible to stakeholders and must include a mechanism to facilitate genuine stakeholder/community engagement with clear roles and responsibilities and a new governance architecture to support the work of the Committee.

“To date there has been no insight into the role and the activity of the National Water Reform Committee and in fact, NIC only became aware of the existence of the Committee (state and federal government agencies) during stakeholder consultation as part of the Commission’s review.

“NIC will continue to work with all governments towards a renewed NWI, due to be agreed by 2022, and will participate on a fair and equal basis as part of the broader effort to secure Australia’s water resources into the future,” Mr Jeffrey said.

Ends. Media Contact: Isaac Jeffrey 0407 083 890