Time is running out on the Murray-Darling plan. Should Tanya Plibersek reach for the big guns?

<span>Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

State governments which have dragged their heels on delivering on their commitments under the Murray-Darling Basin plan are now risking a federal government takeover of water policy after June 2024.

They must judge whether the federal water minister, Tanya Plibersek, will be prepared to reach for the cudgels that are built into the Murray-Darling Basin plan and take over administration of Australia’s most important river system.

The meeting of water ministers on 12 October, the first for more than a year, may be the only opportunity Plibersek has to nudge recalcitrant states before she has to make that choice.

Related: Murray-Darling Basin plan: Victoria will struggle to meet water delivery obligations by deadline

New South Wales and Victoria have already signalled they cannot deliver on the final 25% of environmental water savings – the equivalent of some 605GL – which are to be made via projects agreed as part of the plan. A further 450GL has to be found through new efficiency projects.

However, with 20 months to go, it is now clear many of those projects are hopelessly late. Some haven’t even started.

The very complex agreement between the states and the federal government to save the Murray-Darling was an exercise in cooperative federalism when it was signed in 2012.

It allowed states to keep control of allocating access to water between the stakeholders within their state provided they delivered the environmental outcomes under the plan.

The plan was sweetened with $13bn in federal money, but it also included a stick – the ability of the commonwealth to take over certain aspects of water management if states did not meet their obligations.

Now the question is: will the feds reach for the nuclear option?

Plibersek has already said that “all options are on the table” and that she blames the previous National party water ministers for actively frustrating progress.

On Sky News this week she began by acknowledging the plan’s successes, namely the release of water during the dry years of 2018 and 2019, which she said “really saved the river system at that time from really catastrophic environmental impact” .

“But we’ve still got a way to go, these final stages of the Murray-Darling Basin plan are challenging, but we’ve got to get there,” she said. “We have to achieve what we set out to achieve a decade ago.”

NSW is three years late with delivering its 20 valley-by-valley water resource plans, which set out the detailed rules how water will be managed between users, particularly during and after periods of drought.

The Murray-Darling Basin plan says that failure to deliver water resource plans will entitle the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to take over writing them.

This week NSW had its first plan accredited, after having earlier versions rejected by the MDBA as inadequate. All other states have completed theirs.

Related: Murray-Darling Basin plan on the brink after NSW says it cannot meet water savings deadline

Plibersek appeared to be offering NSW encouragement despite the tardy progress, while noting the plans were supposed to be completed in 2019.

The most complex and contentious plans for the big river catchments in NSW, where powerful cotton interests hold sway (the Barwon-Darling, the Gwydir and the Namoi), are still to be submitted.

The NSW water minister, Kevin Anderson, will need to make a judgment about whether he is better off writing a plan that might anger powerful irrigators and give more to the environment than earlier drafts, or risk losing control over the process entirely.

The reason why the stakes are so high on completing every aspect of the plan is that the targets for recovering water for the environment were set at the bare minimum to probably achieve a healthy river.

The part of the plan to be achieved through buying back water from farmers has largely been achieved . But the 605GL of equivalent water savings via what is known as the sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism (SDLAM) has proved far more problematic.

The Productivity Commission in its reviews of the plan has warned that this method of water saving is much more expensive (if less politically painful). It’s also harder.

NSW has the lion’s share of these but has made little progress. One project alone – the Menindee Lakes project – was supposed to save 106GL. Another, the Yanco Creek modernisation project, was meant to save 35GL. Neither has begun.

The problem, according to the Australian National University Prof Jamie Pittock, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, is that the projects are “technically incompetent” and won’t deliver the water savings promised.

“The federal government should stick to its guns,” he says. “The MDBA should cancel the projects and reallocate the funds. There should be voluntary buybacks for an equivalent amount of money.”

At the moment dam operators are reluctant to release environmental water in the Murray because they fear law suits from flooding private property. Yet these floods are central to restoring wetlands and river red gum forests.

Some 3,300 flood easements have been identified as needing to be purchased. Money is available for moving roads and bridges, but NSW and Victoria have balked at the projects because of their socio-economic impact.

“The federal government should compulsorily acquire land if the states fail to do so,” Pittock says.

“Its 375,000 hectares of wetland which would directly benefit. That’s a huge whack of wetlands in the balance.”

The NSW Greens water spokesperson, Cate Faehrmann, says the National party in her state “never intended to deliver on the basin plan” and has been “deliberately obfuscating and delaying for more than a decade”.

She says Plibersek should launch a review into the failure of state government agencies to implement the plan. “The aims of the basin plan can’t be achieved without buybacks, and I urge the minister to urgently explore this as an option from willing sellers,” Faehrmann says.

The stakes for Plibersek are high. Can she cajole the states into cooperation and get results in 20 months or will she be forced to reach for the big guns?