The Gillard government is facing stiff opposition from the states and scientists to a draft management plan for the Murray-Darling Basin.
Three of the four basin states have rejected the plan, which aims to restore the health of the ailing river system by stripping 2750 gigalitres from irrigators and local communities and returning it to the environment.
On Friday, NSW joined Victoria and South Australia in opposing the plan, saying it failed to take into consideration the triple bottom line of economic, social and environmental needs.
Deputy Premier Andrew Stoner described the plan as an insult.
“We’re not going to sign up to a plan that rips huge amounts of water out of our irrigation communities … and which has the potential to kill country towns,” Mr Stoner told reporters in Sydney on Friday.
Earlier, Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu took aim at federal Water Minister Tony Burke for failing to include the states in negotiating the plan.
“He’s got to actually bring the states along and bring the communities along with him, and I’m not sure that he’s done that,” Mr Baillieu told reporters in Canberra.
Meanwhile, a coalition of 60 scientists from universities across Australia also slammed the plan.
Wetlands expert Richard Kingsford said a major concern was a lack of transparency about reducing the proposed cut to water entitlements from between 3000 and 4000 gigalitres to 2750 gigalitres.
Professor Kingsford also was troubled by the plan to boost groundwater extraction to as much as 2600 gigalitres annually.
The Australian Greens jumped on the scientists’ comments, saying they were the strongest indication yet that the draft plan had failed to address the problems of the river system.
The party called on Mr Burke to reject the proposed groundwater extractions, while requesting the Murray-Darling Basin Authority release modelling of 4000 gigalitres for environmental flows.
Authority chairman Craig Knowles warned that diverting 4000 gigalitres to the environment could result in towns and homes being moved to avoid inundation.
“It’s not the volume of water, it’s what you do with the water – it’s about how you manage it,” Mr Knowles said.
Mr Burke called on Opposition Leader Tony Abbott to make clear the coalition’s position on the draft plan.
“Mr Abbott has been telling people who want less water for the environment not to worry because he won’t support a bad plan,” he said.
“Then he tells those who want more water returned to the rivers to not worry because he’ll only support a good plan.”
Mr Abbott said basin reform had been implemented by the coalition when it was in government.
“I’m not sure that it has always been very well handled by the current government,” he told reporters in Canberra.
He refrained from commenting on the draft plan before seeing what changes might be made by the authority.
“Let’s see what they come up with, and then there will be a strong and sensible response from the coalition,” he said.
A 20-week consultation period allowed by the authority ends on Monday.