Water Allocation

The Hon. J.S.L. DAWKINS ( 14:42 ): I seek leave to make a brief explanation before asking the Minister for Water and the River Murray a question regarding water allocations for irrigators.

Leave granted. 

The Hon. J.S.L. DAWKINS: An article on the ABC news website entitled 'Riverland farmers' futures being held "to ransom" over 2016-17 water allocations', published on 17 March this year, stated that South Australian farmers were not being furnished with enough information regarding the government's plans for possible water restrictions after DEWNR warned earlier this year that allocations could be cut due to flow through the Murray River's South Australian stretch being less than half the long-term average at that stage. 

While the minister advised yesterday, in a statement to this house, that he will provide the details of minimum opening allocations for 2016-17 by 30 April this year, the Renmark Irrigation Trust has called for the implementation of the system used by the Victorian government whereby 'climate scenarios' are provided to irrigators long before water allocations are announced. Such a situation here would help these irrigators' concerns when situations, such as those that happened earlier this year, occur.  This system would also be useful for irrigators, in the light of the circumstances, where last financial year, the minister waited until 26 June to announce the water allocations—just five days before those allocations were to take effect. Given those matters, my questions are: 

1.Will the minister implement a similar system to that used by the Victorian government whereby 'climate scenarios' are provided well ahead of water allocation announcements to enable irrigators to plan and make informed decisions? 

2.Given the minister was fully aware of low Murray-Darling Basin inflows for some time, why has he only recently commissioned a cost-benefit analysis to operate the Adelaide Desalination Plant? 

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER (Minister for Sustainability, Environment and Conservation, Minister for Water and the River Murray, Minister for Climate Change) ( 14:44 ): I thank the Hon. John Dawkins for his very intelligent questions, obviously prompted by my ministerial statement of yesterday. It gives me the opportunity to again run through some key points. The outlook for River Murray inflows for 2016-17 is not positive. I have already announced that we are currently tracking on a very dry inflow scenario, and this is what I will be using to inform an opening allocation for water entitlement holders in 2016-17. 

Scenarios translate to a maximum inflow to the SA River Murray of 1,310 gigalitres by June 2017. This compares to 1,850 gigalitres in a full entitlement year. Ahead of making more general announcements, I will not be commenting on how this translates specifically into opening allocation percentages for particular categories of entitlement holder because, as the Hon. Ms Jing Lee learnt last year, such announcements or thought bubbles, which often occur in certainly the federal Liberal Party ministers at the moment, do have marked impacting effects, and I will be refraining from those sorts of things, which come around once every federal election—a fast train between, for example, Sydney and Canberra. I take my responsibility a little bit more seriously than the Prime Minister does, I have to say. 

The announcements we will been making around the end of April about minimum opening allocations certainly will be earlier than in previous years. We are certainly set on trying to improve our announcement profile throughout the year to actually give irrigators and communities more advanced notice. It is particularly difficult for South Australia at the end of the stream. We need to have a lot of information sent down, but we do, as I said yesterday, already make these climate scenarios quite regularly. There are always officers of DEWNR on the radio making statements about inflows across the border. Honourable members will probably see those in their media summaries from time to time. We give as much information to the community as possible; the Bureau of Meteorology does exactly the same thing. 

I also intend, going forward into the next year, to make subsequent regular allocation announcements based on any hopeful improvements to water resources availability. These will be informed by the findings of the review into the Adelaide Desalination Plant, which the honourable member suggested I had cause to be done. They are due, as I understand it, sometime in May. 

It is important to understand that the review came about because of engagement with the Riverland communities, and particularly it came about because of the draft water allocation plan for the SAMDB natural resources management plan into the future. There it was put to us that in fact we do have a desalination plant in Adelaide, which was put in place as a hedge or an insurance against impending drought, which we will no doubt face again, as we just did over 10 years ago now with the millennium drought. 

We all understand, of course, that desalinated water is much more expensive than catchment or river water; that is, effectively, because you use electricity to make it, and electricity is quite expensive. We need to make very plain to people that calling for the desalination plant to be turned on, which the Liberals do from time to time, obviously will drive up the cost of water. They don't tell people that.

 They say, 'Switch on the desal plant. Switch it on and use the excess water into the irrigators' bucket of water,' but they don't say who is going to pay. Turn it on and we will see what the costs are, and maybe it's the pensioners in Salisbury who will be paying. 

They need to understand that this is what the Liberal Party is actually advocating. They are saying to drive up the cost of water bills to people right across the state, because we have postage stamp pricing, don't forget, Mr President, where the price of water supply to rural and regional areas in South Australia is heavily subsidised by people in the cities and towns because it is much more expensive to deliver water over a long network of pipes to very small communities. But we take the view that that is fair and that we should have statewide pricing to do that. 

The Liberals are proposing that we just turn on the desal plant, not worry about the cost, and drive up those SA Water bills. That's their plan for the future; well, it's not ours, Mr President, and you will remember that in the first determination, led by ESCOSA, we drove down water bills on average for all SA Water customers and, dependent on ESCOSA's next determination, which will be coming out in a few months, our plan is to do exactly the same thing.

The Hon. J.S.L. DAWKINS ( 14:49 ): I have a supplementary question. I thank the minister for his answer, and I am grateful for the fact that, as he said in his own words, the announcement of water restrictions will be much earlier than in previous years. Will the minister have ongoing discussions with organisations like the Renmark Irrigation Trust and the Central Irrigation Trust in the development of the strategy of announcing restrictions in the future? 

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER (Minister for Sustainability, Environment and Conservation, Minister for Water and the River Murray, Minister for Climate Change) ( 14:50 ): I frequently engage with the Riverland communities, particularly the irrigators, and certainly the NRM board and the AAMC. I think I was up in Mannum last Friday talking to AAMC about these issues. It's important that everybody understands that there are some things I can consult on and talk about and there are some things I have to be very careful about because they have a market impact. 

If we make those determinations or have those discussions, I have to be very careful about the comments that we make. We can't be seen to be giving preferential treatment to one small group of people over another. Our intention is to explore these issues very broadly with the whole community and also through the representative bodies. But in terms of water-impacting announcements, I will keep them very close, make them to the market in the appropriate way, and that's usually through a ministerial statement, a ministerial press release, and putting it up on the DEWNR website so that everyone can access that information at the same time. I think that's the right thing to do.