An interim water allocation from savings owed to northern irrigators under the Connections modernisation program may be available from late next year.
Water Minister Lisa Neville said she had asked Goulburn-Murray Water (G-MW) to look at an interim allocation when Connections is physically finished, in October.
"I am hopeful we will be able to do that, before the final allocation," Ms Neville said.
"The aim is to get a down payment, by the end of 2020, to irrigators."
Goulburn-Murray Irrigation District farmers, particularly those in the dairy sector, have struggled with high water costs this year, with temporary prices hitting $600/megalitre.
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Northern Victorian irrigators say they are growing increasingly concerned it won't be until 2023, after two full audits are done, before they see promised water savings.
Irrigators, Melbourne Water and the environment are to each receive 75 gigalitres in savings from Connections.
Ms Neville confirmed the system needed to be audited over at least two seasons, to ensure water savings had been made.
"So I'll be asking G-MW if we can do an interim distribution, and, secondly, do we need to audit the second full season?" she said.
She said Connections was on track to achieve the 429GL long-term annual average water recovery target.
She confirmed that the environment would receive its 75GL within the next few weeks.
"It's a requirement of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan that we provide the environmental water by June 30, 2019," she said.
"This means we will meet our commitments under the Plan and there will be no further water recovery without neutral or positive socio-economic impacts."
Ms Neville has also announced a consultative committee, headed by former Victorian MP and Victorian Farmers Federation president Paul Weller, would be set up to recommend the best mechanism to distribute the irrigators' share.
Food Bowl project
In 2011, the Commonwealth and Victorian governments signed a Heads of Agreement, to commence what was known as the Food Bowl Modernisation Project, which became Connections.
Water savings of 225GL, under modernisation, were to be returned to Melbourne Water, the environment and irrigators by the end of the project.
Representatives of the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning recently told Goulburn-Murray Irrigation District Water Services Committee chairs and deputies the proposed time frame for finalisation of the entitlements was 2023.
G-MW Murray Valley Water Services Committee chair Jason Andrew said while Connections would be physically completed next year, no full audit of savings could be done until the end of the the 2020-21 water season.
That audit would be released in late 2021.
But another audit would then have to be done on the full 2021-22 season, meaning no savings would be applied until the 2023 season.
"It won't be any earlier, it can't be before 2023, but if the water savings are there, right now, why can't they get them to the irrigators right now?" Mr Andrew said.
He said it was unfair if water was returned to Melbourne Water and the environment before irrigators.
"If you have given it to one group, why can't you give it to the others?" he said.
"We were all supposed to get it at the same time."
Murrabit dairy farmer Andrew Leahy said under the Water Act, he believed irrigators should receive their entitlements now.
"Everybody will have forgotten about the 75GL by 2023 - maybe that's what they want?" Mr Leahy said.
But he said he had been told G-MW's water resource manager Dr Mark Bailey had confirmed 224.5GL had been recovered.
"We have, in theory, only loaned it to them, to get stage two of Connections done.
"I would have thought we would be getting some of it back, by now.
"If they do the accounting and there's a shortfall, are we ever going to get that back?
Mr Leahy said if the savings were there, it shouldn't take another 12 months to audit the system.
He said the 75GL would average out to about four to five megalitres, for each delivery share.
"I have 20 delivery shares," he said.
Opposition Water spokesperson Steph Ryan admitted former Water Minister Peter Walsh signed over irrigators savings, from the first stage of modernisation, to ensure a further $1 billion funding to finish the project.
Ms Ryan said the government had to hand over the water, in order to avoid further environmental buy-backs.
"The risk was that we were going to be left with a half finished project," she said.
"It was the best way of doing it, with the least possible cost to irrigators.
"It was never part of the agreement that irrigators wouldn't get their water until 2023."
She said Melbourne Water received its share in 2010, while water had also been transferred to the environment.
"You really have to wonder if people would have signed on in 2007, if they had known it was going to be such a lengthy process and they wouldn't see the water savings they were promised for years," she said.
"When that agreement was struck, it was never part of it that irrigators wouldn't get their water until 2023."
Ms Ryan said G-MW and the government kept saying they were on track, not only to meet their savings, but to exceed them.
"If they are so confident, why do they need to run the system for two seasons, in order to return the water to irrigators?" she said.
Victorian Farmers Federation Water Council chair Richard Anderson said he hoped the water would be released to irrigators, sooner rather than later.
"The water is to be transferred, according to the funding agreement," Mr Anderson said.
The whole project wasn't due to be completed until October 2020.
"If there is any water available at the start of the season, it should be made available to us
"Unless we get some serious rain, it looks like it's going to be a tough year.
"I am putting pressure on to make whatever is available early; I'm encouraging them to get out, whatever they can."
A DELWP spokesperson said the last independent audit, to June 30, 2018, verified the project had achieved 333.8GL of audited water recovery.
"The next audit of water recovery will be completed in late 2019 which will confirm the cumulative water recovery to June 30, 2019," the spokesperson said