New water minister takes whirlwind familiarisation tour

By Zoe McMaugh

Federal Water Minister Keith Pitt this week made his first official tour of the Murray Darling Basin.

Mr Pitt started the tour in the region on Tuesday, including the Barham Choke.

He was flanked by Deniliquin-based Nationals Senator Perin Davey, who said she is already putting pressure on the new minister to return to Deniliquin and district and meet with irrigator and community bodies.

During a phone interview with the Pastoral Times from the tour bus, Mr Pitt did vow he would return to the region and would be ‘‘here to listen’’.

‘‘This is the very first thing I’ve done in terms of a visit; nothing beats a first hand look,’’ he said.

‘‘This (the choke) is an important part of the basin, and obviously there are some challenges.

‘‘There are the obvious issues of capacity, of damage to the banks and in delivery downstream.

‘‘My first visit is an overview, mainly of the infrastructure in the basin.

‘‘I want to give confidence, that the Basin Plan is a high priority and that as an engineer I am focused on the detail.’’

While Mr Pitt is still familiarising himself with the basin and his new role, he said he believes improved balance in the plan can be achieved ‘‘in terms of infrastructure’’.

He reiterated that ‘‘the government is committed to the Murray Darling Basin Plan’’.

Ms Davey said she was on Mr Pitt’s doorstep about a visit to the region as soon as she heard he’d received the water portfolio.

‘‘The minister’s first priority is to understand the system, and with only five days between sitting days he said ‘what can we organise that will let me see what its all about?’,’’ Senator Davey said.

‘‘He has had briefings from the department and the Murray Darling Basin Authority, and I told him he has to see the Barmah Choke, not just because of the Murray Darling Basin Plan but because of the Murray Darling Agreement.

‘‘With all the talk about the choke and the delivery further downstream, it was important for the minister to visit.

‘‘He flew over hume dam and the choke, and we got him on the river at Barmah where he could see the bank instability (as a result of prolonged high flows) first hand.

‘‘I explained the capacity of the choke and explained the ideal environmental watering schedule, which many here believe should not be occurring in summer.

‘‘I also wanted to make sure the minister understood the danger and risks to riparian landholders when it comes to third party flooding, and why there is so much concern about the constraints.’’

After Barmah Mr Pitt was shown the Murrumbidgee junction at Griffith and the Darling junction at Mildura, before he continued on to Renmark and the Lower Lakes in South Australia without Senator Davey in tow.

‘‘I have said that when you come back next time, don’t forget Deni; you need to get here and speak to people,’’ the Senator said.

‘‘I have reiterated to him the importance of the ACCC review and the vital Keelty review, and that we need to make sure these happen.

‘‘There is also the productivity report and not every recommendation has been implemented yet.  It is important to look at those and tick off some more.

‘‘We cannot stop or ignore the reviews that are underway, and I am confident those reviews will come to fruition although I cannot pre-empt the result, or our (The Nationals’) response.’’