INDEPENDENT MP Tony Windsor is once again urging calm in the heated battle over Murray Darling Basin water planning, as he did when the Guide was released October, believing a win-win solution beyond politics is achievable.
But being a legislative instrument, the proposed Murray Darling Basin Plan will require a political outcome, regardless of what anyone says now.
While the process still has a long way to go, it appears horse trading on the legislation is highly likely during the final stages of its development, to clear the final hurdles of a vote in the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Nobody appears happy with the draft Basin Plan apart from MDBA Chairman Craig Knowles.
In its current form, the plan proposes 2750 gigalitres be reserved for environmental water flows.
But irrigation and farming groups are disgruntled by reductions to traditional water allocations, even though about 45 percent of that volume has already been found or recovered, through various works and measures.
Early predictions are the remaining 1450GL can be reduced to virtually zero with the advent of additional water infrastructure programs and other hydrological efficiencies.
In contrast, conservation groups say 2750GL is hardly enough water to cater for environmental concerns.
That line is being supported by the Greens who are already threatening to block the plan unless the minimum number is increased to 4000GL, satisfying scientific demands.
It appears, in making the best of a bad situation, the Authority has aimed for the middle ground with its latest numbers - understanding the plan needs a practical edge and can’t be propelled by an idealistic environmental dream, in order to succeed politically.
As for the process, the draft Plan’s release has triggered a 20 week formal consultation period where everybody now has an opportunity to speak, raise objections and put forward solutions.
At the end of the consultation period in late April 2012, the Authority will finalise the draft Plan taking on board legitimate concerns raised by irrigators, scientists, conservationists and other community groups and individuals.
It must also prepare a document that summarises submissions, discusses how comments were addressed and outlines any alterations made to the proposed plan resulting from those submissions.
In step two of a final three step process, the Basin Plan will then be presented to the Murray Darling Basin Ministerial Council to gather the thoughts and opinions of Water Ministers from each of the four Basin States and the ACT.
It must be accompanied by the Authority’s advice on the likely socio‑economic implications of any reductions in the long‑term average Sustainable Diversion Limits (SDL’s).
The Council then has six weeks to specify any disagreement and if there is any, the Authority must consider and consult (if necessary) and either confirm or alter the proposed Basin Plan.
The Authority will also need to prepare a document that summarises its consultations and outlines any alterations to the proposed plan and present that to the Council which has a further three weeks to consider the Plan before it’s presented to the Federal Water Minister Tony Burke.
At stage three, Mr Burke can adopt the plan or hand it back to the Authority recommending more changes be made, before it’s finally presented to Parliament.
Once Mr Burke is satisfied, the proposed legislative instrument will be formally gazetted for Parliament, where it will undergo a 15 day objection period.
Any objections during that 15 day period will see it debated in the House of Representatives, before being voted on and if successful, then taken to the Senate where the Greens hold the balance of power.
There are clear check-points along the way before the legislation is voted on in the House.
But closer to the end of the process, and not now while the extreme ends of the lengthy water debate are typically squabbling publicly, the Government is likely to horse trade with other parties to ensure the legislation passes through parliament and is not simply killed off when it comes up for the vote.
The other major parties and Independent MPs are likely to make up their minds closer to the time, once they see what’s in the final Bill.
The Greens and Coalition may be making bold statements now but in reality they are just grandstanding to gain early headlines and appease their natural constituents.
But if there is a practical solution and the legislation strikes the best middle ground - and both major parties can agree - it’s unlikely the Greens or the Independents will be needed.
One of the keys will be delivering greater certainty to the rural and regional communities that have the most to lose from any real water reductions.
The Authority says it proposing the Plan be implemented over the seven years to 2019, with different parts of the Plan starting at different times.
It’s proposing the environmental watering plan, the water quality and salinity management plan and the monitoring and evaluation program will start being implemented from 2012, while water trading rules will be introduced in 2013 and 2014.
The SDLs for surface water and groundwater will begin in 2019.
“It is important to note that water recovery activities to meet the SDLs will occur over the whole seven year period,” the Authority says.
“State water resource plans will be progressively renewed over the seven year period to 2019.
“Reviews will be carried out in 2015 of the SDLs and by 2017 on the environmental watering plan, water quality and salinity management plan.
“These reviews will be coordinated and could lead to amendments to the Basin Plan by mid 2017.”
Of the remaining 1450GL or so, Mr Windsor says it won’t take rocket science to reach that target without any removed water entitlement, thanks to major infrastructure investment and water use efficiencies.
He says water will only be purchased from willing sellers and in the end; the socio-economic impacts could be relatively small while community investment would be large.
But of course, he says the river’s health is most important to everybody; a point to which everyone agrees, but at times gets lost in the murky details.