The head of a trio of National Party MPs seeking the release of more environmental water to irrigators has said the group is taking a cautious approach to the issue.
In December last year, NSW Senator Perin Davey, Mallee MP Anne Webster and Nicolls representative Damian Drum flagged legislation calling on the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder to free up resources to irrigators.
Ms Davey, who is based in Deniliquin, NSW, said she had originally hoped to table a draft private member's bill in February, but she, and her colleagues, were now consulting with stakeholders and the industry.
"I'm still awaiting some legal advice," she said.
"In saying that, the consultations have been working really well, and there have been a lot of interesting issues raised."
Freeing up environmental water would require changes to the Water Act.
Ms Davey said the consultation was intended to make sure the design of the bill was right.
"We need to make sure we have designed it in a way that the parliament can support it," she said.
"It's not a grab back; it's not about taking water from the environment every year, it's about trying to respond to the low water years, in a reasonable way."
She acknowledged there were legitimate environmental uses for water in dry years.
She said she had "long conversations" with Federal Water Resources Minister David Littleproud and Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley.
"My key incentive, in doing this, was to get the conversation started," she said.
"If we haven't got the design of this bill right, I will delay putting it in."
But The Australia Institute senior water researcher Maryanne Slattery said the MPs were looking in the wrong place.
"I think they genuinely want to come up with some solutions, there's no question irrigators in the Murray are in a lot of trouble," Ms Slattery said.
She said the big question, which hadn't been answered, was the unfettered growth of permanent plantings in the lower Murray.
"That has put a huge impost on the system, in terms of conveyancing water," she said.
"We have allowed this massive growth of almond plantings, mostly owned by foreign corporations and institutional investors.
"There isn't enough water to keep those almonds alive."
Victorian government figures had shown there was only enough water in the system to keep 40 per cent of the new nut plantations in Sunraysia and the Riverland alive, once they reached maturity.
"But no one is prepared to go to the sacred cow, and that is what is the effect of the market separation of land from water," Ms Slattery said.
"No one is prepared to look under that rock and we need to, if we have any hope of keeping our fourth and fifth generation farmers going."
She said simply releasing the CEWH's water back onto the market would mean it would go to the highest value use, which was nut production.
Dr Webster said a primary premise behind preparing the draft legislation was that the group did not want to cause harm to either the environment or irrigators.
"There may be scope, within the current arrangements, for the CEWH to release some water back into consumptive use when a drought trigger is called," she said.
Stakeholder meetings in Mildura with Ms Davey had been very useful.
"We are dealing with a very difficult and complex subject, a subject that has a lot of history to it," she said.
"This isn't being presented as a silver bullet, we are merely wanting to have a conversation if there is any scope to improve expectations and hope among irrigators.
"If this bill were to put in place any perverse outcomes, there would be no appetite for it."
But Independent Shepparton MP Suzanna Sheed said the proposal appeared to be "dead in the water", unless it was supported by the appropriate ministers and federal parliamentarians.
"It has been regarded fairly sceptically in a lot of quarters - why would MPs have to put up a private member's bill when they are part of the government?" Ms Sheed said.
She called on Ms Ley, and other coalition members, to support the three National Party MPs.
"While it is puzzling to consider that these National Party members are proposing to introduce a private member's bill to unlock environmental water for my region's farmers, given that they are members of the government.
"It's time the minister listened to them and made this private member's bill official government policy."
She said many in the community would have welcomed the opportunity of the CEWH making some water available on the market, just as the Victorian Environmental Water Holder had done in the past.
"The question really is whether the federal government should have some leverage, in extreme circumstances, to require it to happen," she said.
"The extreme circumstances would be set out in any bill and include severe drought conditions."
Plans to release environmental water had been flagged before.
"It's surprising the CEWH is taking such a firm stand, it's quite clear the government doesn't have much influence on the CEWH," she said.
"But we vote for the government, we don't vote for the CEWH."
Ms Ley has been contacted for comment.