‘New’ water in the Murray-Darling Basin is rarely made available, so a recent Victorian government decision to allocate water to irrigators has been labelled a “kick in the guts” by traditional owners.
- Traditional owners call for Victorian Government to reverse recent water allocation to irrigators.
- The water came from a major irrigation network upgrade.
- First Nations people hold almost no water rights in the Murray-Darling Basin
The water comes from the $2 billion Connections Project, which modernised northern Victoria’s Goulburn Murray Irrigation District (GMID), and gave the 225 gigalitres of water it saved back to irrigators, the Victorian Environmental Water Holder and Melbourne water retailers in stage one.
Later savings under Stage Two split among irrigators and the Commonwealth, bringing the total water savings to 429GL.
Stage One was funded by the Victorian Government and Melbourne water retailers, while Stage Two was funded by the Commonwealth.
Recently, Acting Water Minister Richard Wynne announced that an additional 2GL of water had been saved from the projects, and that it would be allocated to irrigators, bringing their total to 77GL.
Murray Darling Lower Rivers Indigenous Nations (MDLRIN) wrote to Mr Wynne late last week, expressing “deep frustration” with the announcement, in a letter seen by the ABC.
The letter called on the Minister to “immediately commit funding to acquire water entitlements for traditional owners and First Nations in northern Victoria”.
Tati Tati man Brendan Kennedy described the lack of consultation with traditional owners in northern Victoria about how the 2GL would be allocated, and being denied access to it, as “unjustifiable”.
University of Melbourne early career researcher Dr Erin O’Donnell said it was unclear why all of the additional savings were allocated to a single group, rather than being shared equally.
“The government committed to recovering 225GL under Stage One of the Connections Project, 75GL each were to go to the environment, irrigators and Melbourne for a drought reserve” Dr O’Donnell said.
“There is no indication in any of the previous work of the project to suggest any additional savings would be handed to one of those parties, over the others,” Dr O’Donnell said.
A Victorian government statement said:
“We recognise the traditional owners’ connection to water.
“We will continue to work closely with Aboriginal groups to ensure their voices are heard in relation to access to water in Victoria as well as in the Murray Darling Basin Plan.”
Late last year, the government announced 2GL of unallocated surface water in Gippsland’s Mitchell River would be given to the Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation (GLaWAC), in a historic decision for the state and Indigenous groups.
That allocation was made under the 2016 ‘Water for Victoria’ plan, which promised to improve Aboriginal access to water, and more engagement with First Nations groups.
The ‘Cultural Water for Cultural Communities’ report was handed to Mr Wynne’s office in March, funded under the Water for Victoria plan, that stated the only opportunity for traditional owners in northern Victoria to access water rights was through state and federal re-allocation of water.
“The government has known this is the only option, [the Cultural Water for Cultural Communities project] has been working closely with traditional owners and the Department of Water Environment, Land and Planning,” Dr O’Donnell, an author of the report, said.
Mr Kennedy said, after years of consultation and work with government departments, this decision felt like a step backwards.
“This is extremely disappointing,” he said.
“We’ve got the treaty process happening in Victoria, and we have a self determination strategy with the Government for Traditional Owners, so this is a total contrast to that, a backflip, and we expect to be treated a lot better than this.
While the Federal Government has $40 million on the table to improve First Nations water ownership, that funding divides a small amount of water among many groups in the Murray Darling Basin.
And the existing cultural flows under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan do release water for cultural purposes, but the water rights remain with the Commonwealth.
In northern Victoria, 2GL would have represented a significant step change for traditional owners in the Basin, according to Mr Kennedy,
“We’ve already seen what it can do for the Gunaikurnai, it’s helped them gain water ownership,” he said.
“In northern Victoria, it could be used for cultural flows, to water our country, something that hasn’t happened in the Basin.”