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PM to pledge $1.7b on farm water upgrades

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National security correspondent

View more articles from David Wroe

Julia Gillard will pledge $1.7 billion in new spending for farm water infrastructure upgrades.

Julia Gillard will pledge $1.7 billion in new spending for farm water infrastructure upgrades. Photo: Craig Sillitoe

Prime Minister Julia Gillard will today pledge $1.7 billion in new spending for farm water infrastructure upgrades – such as channels and pipes - to help the ailing Murray-Darling river system.

Amid an ongoing battle between irrigators and conservationists, today's announcement will be a compromise measure that delivers more water while softening the blow to farming communities.

The money, which Fairfax Media understands will be spent over 10 years starting in 2014-15, will be used to make irrigation more efficient so that food and other produce can be grown with less water.

This can include levelling ground to reduce runoff, constructing pipes, lining and sealing channels and putting covers on dams to stop evaporation.

Under the present plan devised by the independent Murray Darling Basin Authority, the government will return 2750 billion litres of irrigation water to the environment, mostly by buying back irrigators' water rights.

But irrigators say this will destroy rural communities, particularly in southern NSW and northern Victoria. Conservationists and the South Australian government, meanwhile have been demanding that much more water be returned to the environment to boost the health of wetlands and other sites that depend on natural flooding and water flows.

Ms Gillard will make the announcement in South Australia today.

The move will be seen as a compromise that will please both sides. South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill has threatened to go the High Court unless more water than the planned 2750 billion litres is returned the environment. But NSW and Victoria strongly oppose raising the figure.

Of the existing $5.8 billion infrastructure program, only about $500 million has been spent on the Murray-Darling basin.

Water Minister Tony Burke has said he wants to get a Murray-Darling plan nailed down by the end of the year. He has threatened to go over the heads of the states if need be.

Coalition spokesman for water and regional development Barnaby Joyce questioned where the money would come from.

''This bloke's saying in the future, somebody else will borrow some money and do something wonderful for you, and I want you to thank me for it,'' he told ABC radio.

''They're making promises for things that are going to happen out to 2024. I mean, they'll be lucky to be there next year, let alone in 2024. So, what does this statement actually mean?''

with Dan Harrison

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