Government dams River Murray funding

South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill.Source: Murray Valley Standard

A row has erupted between the South Australian government and Murray Darling Basin Authority chair Craig Knowles over the government’s plan to slash millions of dollars destined to help restore the health of the Basin.

A mid-year budget review on Thursday revealed SA government plans to axe $14.3 million of its contribution towards the upkeep of the Murray Darling Basin.

The decision risked unravelling an agreement between states to share responsibility for the health of the Basin, according toMurray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) chairman, Craig Knowles.

“… it’sa 50 per cent cut in its joint funding contribution,” he said.

He said the planned funding cut by SA followed a decision by the New South Wales government to cut $20 million from this year’s contribution.

A further $3 million is due to be cut next year.

“In the event the other Basin states follow suit, the join program budget will be reduced to about $27 million by 2014-15, down from this year’s allocation of $110 million,” said Mr Knowles.

“I am very concerned this level of funding will be insufficient to cover even basic river operations such as water delivery to irrigators.”

But SA Water Minister Paul Ciaca lashed out at Mr Knowles’ comments, saying the funding arrangement was unfair.

“Mr Knowles’ deafening silence with respect to funding reductions made by NSW is indicative of the Authority’s approach to formulating the basin plan,” he said.

“South Australia was expected to accept an unfair plan and the state opposition were willing to accept it, but we did not.As has been stated, the basin plan will not be affected by these reductions.

Mr Ciaca said the government remained committed to the plan but funding arrangements needed to be revised.

“Fairness was at the heart of our Fight for the Murray and we refuse to be lectured by Mr Knowles on this matter,” he said.

A spokesman for Premier Jay Weatherill said the premier was on personal leave and could not be contacted.

Treasurer Jack Snellingtold ABC Radio Adelaide on Friday the funding cut was appropriate.

“New South Wales made a decision recently to reduce their contribution by 73 per cent. Now, South Australia extracts about 7 per centof the water out of the river; at the moment we pay about a quarter of the funding towards the MDBA,” he said.

“To an extent we’re happy to share more than our share of the burden but when one state’s slashing its funding by three quarters I can’t expect South Australian taxpayers to support this organisation in an unfair way.”

In November,Mr Weatherill claimed victorywhen federal Water minister Tony Burke said SA had secured an addition 450 billion litres of water for the Basin, as the final Basin plan was announced.

Opposition Water and River Murray spokeswoman Vickie Chapman said it was time for the ‘Save the River Murray’ levy, paid by SA Water customers, to be axed.

“Money collected by the levy should be used for projects to support a healthy river system, not to pay for the administrative costs of administering the Murray Darling Basin Plan,” she said.

“If the levy is not going to be used for actual projects, then the government should not be collecting it.”

Mr Knowles said he held grave fears that further cuts to state contributions would mean insufficient funding to maintain $2.5 billion in river assests.

“… such as dams, weirs and locks, including Hume and Dartmouth dams and the South Australian barrages,” he said.