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Discussion paper

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is an ambitious $13bn reform to reduce the amount of water extracted for irrigation and return that water to the environment. The Commonwealth has budgeted $3 billion to acquire approximately 2,500GL from the irrigator pool, with specific targets in each valley since 2008.

The Australia Institute’s released That’s not how you haggle in March 2018, which explains the first episode of the controversy relating to a major water acquisition in Queensland’s Condamine-Balonne Valley. This controversial sale later become known as #Watergate and is currently enjoying renewed mainstream media attention.

In brief, the former Deputy Prime Minister and Water Minister, Barnaby Joyce, approved nearly $80 million for nearly 29 GL in the Condamine-Balonne Valley from a company called Eastern Australia Agriculture (EAA). EAA originally offered the water at $2,200/ML, but the price increased during the negotiations to 2,745/ML.

Of particular concern was that the type of water right that the Commonwealth purchased is an ‘overland flow licence’. This is the right to use water that flows over land during floods, which occur easily in the relatively flat country of the northern Basin. These licences are attached to the land that water flows over, meaning that the Commonwealth has no legal control over the water once it flows outside the EAA property – it can be extracted by other users. EAA proposed that the Commonwealth could use one of their dams to have more control over their water. The Commonwealth paid for the dam but has no rights or agreement in place to use it.

The original research was based on documents obtained by Centre Alliance Senator Rex Patrick. The Guardian obtained further documents through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, which reveals more issues around the creation of the water licences and the due diligence around the sale.

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