The Murray-Darling Basin Plan provides a unique opportunity to improve the long-term health and sustainability of the environment, economy and communities of the Murray-Darling Basin. The Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism provides flexibility to achieve these outcomes through jointly implementing projects that enable environmental outcomes to be achieved with less water (supply and constraints measures) and reducing water losses through irrigation, commercial use and public water supply infrastructure (efficiency measures).
Under the Commonwealth Water Efficiency Program, there is over $1.5 billion available to improve water efficiency and deliver 450 gigalitres of water for the environment. Projects can include, for example, upgrading irrigation systems, lining water delivery channels, replacing channels with pipes or installing water meters, along with water productivity improvements in manufacturing or irrigated agriculture, or changes to urban water management practices.
Buybacks and efficiency measures are often conflated, especially when it comes to the negative impacts of water buybacks to industries and communities. The South Australian Government has been very clear that efficiency measures are the preferred method of recovering water for the environment, as they provide real and positive outcomes to irrigation businesses, while supporting communities that would otherwise be hard hit by the reduction in regional productivity or the closure of businesses through water leaving the consumptive pool as occurs with buybacks.
Unlike water buybacks that remove water from the consumptive pool, efficiency measures increase the volume of water available. Efficiency measures recover water that is effectively “lost” through evaporation, leaky infrastructure and inefficient irrigation systems or overwatering. This water was unavailable for on-farm production use until the project was completed and the efficiency gain realised. For a project to be approved as an efficiency measure, it must only return to the environment the conservative or minimum feasible volume that can be saved through the works, while maintaining or increasing productivity, profitability and resilience to climate and water variability.
Efficiency measures projects also generate water savings above the volume returned to the environment as part of the funding agreement and are effectively increasing the water available for productive uses in the consumptive pool. These additional water savings are retained by the applicant and can be traded on the water market, used to increase irrigated area or manage water availability in dry years. Consequently, any upward pressure on water market prices cannot be directly attributable to properly developed on-farm efficiency measures projects, which put downward pressure on water market prices and increase productivity and farm profits.
In South Australia, investment in on- and off-farm water saving infrastructure has created opportunities for irrigators to increase their productivity with sustainable spin-off opportunities for suppliers of goods and services in the region. Participants in water efficiency programs purchased plant stock from nurseries, design services for engineering projects, business consulting services (e.g. marketing and export), irrigation equipment from local suppliers and building services for construction of infrastructure.
South Australia continues to encourage participation in the efficiency measures program to generate positive outcomes for irrigators and regional communities and is assessing all applications in full accordance with the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council agreed socio-economic criteria.