THE Gillard government faces a fresh brawl with the eastern states over its Murray-Darling Basin plan after yesterday placating South Australia with a $1.7 billion pledge to inject extra water into the ailing river system.
The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the Water Minister, Tony Burke, announced the new funding yesterday as a way to pump a further 450 billion litres back into the rivers - lifting the total amount returned through their basin rescue plan to 3200 billion litres.
The boost will come through infrastructure upgrades such as improved channels and dams, which aim to save water while softening the blow to farming communities that depend on irrigation.
Sceptical … Sue and Pat Kennedy in their cotton crop near Condobolin. They say they would be very careful about accepting government funding for infrastructure upgrades for fear of red tape. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
''It means that the river, the basin, will be more resilient for the future,'' Ms Gillard said.
The NSW Deputy Premier, Andrew Stoner, said he was not convinced the federal government's new money would deliver the water with destroying rural communities.
''Unless the Commonwealth can convince us they're going to change tack and actually deliver on that infrastructure and water-efficiency funding, we won't be signing up,'' he said.
"Unless the Commonwealth can convince us ... we won't be signing up" ... Andrew Stoner, Deputy Premier.
The Victorian Water Minister, Peter Walsh, declared emphatically he would not support a plan that returned 3200 billion litres of water to the river system.
Victoria and NSW argue the baseline amount of water returned to the environment should be 2100 billion litres, with a possible 650 billion litres on top through savings from ''environmental works and measures'' such as pumping water into wetlands.
Ms Gillard said $200 million would be spent raising bridges and extending dams - known as ''constraints'' - so more water could be flushed through the system without causing flooding.
Recent modelling by the independent Murray-Darling Basin Authority found with river constraints removed, 3200 billion litres would greatly help the environment, especially river red gum and black box woodlands.
The South Australian Premier, Jay Weatherill, who joined his federal Labor colleagues for yesterday's announcement, stepped back from threats to challenge the basin plan in the High Court.
The federal opposition water spokesman, Barnaby Joyce, asked how the government was going to deliver the extra water.
''Where are the calculations that add to $1.7 billion? Where's the hydrology study?'' he said on ABC 24. ''This is really into the never-never land stuff … you are telling us that by 2024 magically $1.7 billion will give us 450 [billion litres]. Prove it.''
The chief executive of the NSW Irrigators Council, Andrew Gregson, welcomed the infrastructure funding but questioned whether the government knew how it would use the extra water.
''Their pandering to Greens and the SA Premier - without having a plan to acquire the water, without having any idea how to deliver the water and without having thought about flooding roads, towns, bridges and houses - must stop,'' he said.
The Australian Conservation Foundation's Paul Sinclair said buybacks of water rights were the cheapest and most efficient way for the government to save water.
''This new funding must not become an ATM for irrigation companies,'' he said.
A Condobolin cotton farmer, Pat Kennedy, feared the basin plan would destroy farming communities. He said he'd need a ''pretty strong incentive'' to ask for infrastructure upgrade money out of fear of being bound in government red tape.
''How much money have they already wasted?'' he said.