Goulburn-Murray Water is seeking further federal funding for more irrigation upgrades - but farmers claim that's because the $2.2 billion Connections project has run out of money.
GMW is seeking a further $175.5 million in federal funding for two modernisation projects, it says will recover a further 15.9 gigalitres of water.
A senior Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning bureaucrat said the parameters for Connections were announced when it was reset, in 2016.
"It identified the amount of works it was going to do, for the amount of money left, and the amount of water to be recovered," DELWP Statewide Infrastructure and Rural Strategy executive director Andrew Fennessy said.
"It has always been known Connections was never going to modernise every part of the system.
"That was made very clear in 2016."
Mr Fennessy said the first time the further works were identified was in 2018.
In May, 2018, the federal government allowed an amendment, to reduced the 2750GL target for environmental water recovery to 2145.
That was on the basis of the Basin states providing water savings outcomes equivalent to 605GL of environmental water.
Mr Fennessy said if the WEP projects were not carried out, water would come out of the consumptive pool
"If we didn't deliver these, we would be very much in a place where the commonwealth came in, looking at buybacks," Mr Fennessey said.
"The projects target system inefficiencies, to stop the commonwealth coming in here and buying water.'
Connections is Australia's biggest water saving projects, covering an area of 250 kilometres from Swan Hill to Cobram, and accounting for about 90 per cent of all Victorian irrigators.
It is due to be completed in October, this year, with irrigators expected to return 429 gigalitres of water savings to the environment and Melbourne.
In a presentation to Water Service Committee chairs, GMW said it was seeking the funding from the commonwealth's $1.5bn Water Efficiencies Program.
"Victoria has identified further works within its irrigation systems for commonwealth investment through its northern Victorian water recovery prospectus," the chairs were told.
GMW had identified the projects would deliver neutral or positive socio-economic benefits, in accordance with the Victorian government's consistent position at the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council.
Water Minister Lisa Neville confirmed that without the projects, there was a risk for further buybacks, in the GMID.
"The projects do no have any negative socio-economic impacts and will actually deliver positive outcomes for regional communities, through upgraded water delivery systems and regional investment," Ms Neville said.
The two projects are the Backbone Transformation Project (BTP), to rationalise and modernise channels and meters, throughout the GMID and the Shepparton East Project (SEP).
GMW said the projects are separate to Connections, which GMW said was on track to achieve 429GL in water recovery by October.
The irrigation system was built more than a century ago and was estimated to lose about a third of its water from leakages, seepage, evaporation and metering inaccuracies.
In the cast presented to WSC chairs, GMW said the the BTP was expected to save 14.7GL of water, cover 800 customers, decommission 148 outlets, automate 81km of channels and upgrade 694 meters.
It was intended to decommission 149 kilometres of channels.
The SEP project would automate 21.6km of channels, decommission one kilometre, replace 1.7km with pipeline and retain 51.km without modernisation.
The "efficiency optimisation approach" would be applied to all 64 modernised channels sections, for the number 10 and 11 channels in Shepparton East.
GMW's Central Goulburn Water Services Committee chair Peter Hacon said there was an "enormous" amount of unfinished work, still to complete.
"The business case was flawed," Mr Hacon said.
"According to the experts, it's miraculously on budget to save all the water it was going to save, despite the fact not all the works have been done."
He said Connections had lost its way.
"It's metamorphosed from a balanced infrastructure and water savings project, to being a pure water savings project - it's sole priority now is as a water savings project,' he said.
"I see the Connections project as a bit of creative accounting."
Mr Hacon said he believed the savings appeared to be part of Victoria's 62GL, required for the further 450GL environmental water, sought by the commonwealth.
"One would wonder how many times we can put our finger in the same pie?" he said.
Boort irrigator Lawrie Maxted said he was concerned at where the works were going to be done.
"I would have thought the work has been done on the low hanging fruit, the easy ones, now they are going to find these extra savings," Mr Maxted said.
"I have some concerns about water being taken away from the irrigators, although they say that's not going to happen."
He said despite promises work would go to local businesses, that hadn't been the case, in the past.
Mr Maxted said GMW needed more savings and he was concerned they would come out of the consumptive pool..
"It's not many years ago we had 1600GL, in the bulk entitlement, now we are down to less than 800GL," he said.
"I shudder at where they found their savings, I really do."
Murrabit dairy farmer, Andrew Leahy, said it was clear the money GMW was given wasn't sufficient to complete Connections.
He said he wanted answers why there was a need for extra modernisation projects.
Mr Leahy said while he was not supportive of the plan, he saw no option to it.
"If we don't do this, what happens?", he said.
"Have we been backed into a corner, where we don't have a choice - do we let the region just die a slow death?
"I'm not supporting it, but I'm sitting on a barbed wire fence."
Mr Leahy said it appeared there had been no extra money had been set aside, for contingencies.
"We were given a fixed amount and had to work backwards from it - but if you go to a road project, there tends to be 10-25 per cent of the price, set aside for cost blow-outs.
"There was no contingency money, no extra money to finish the project."
In principle support
Victorian Farmers Federation water council chair Richard Anderson said, in principle, the deal sounded like a good one
He said Connections funding worked out to about $5000 a megalitre, in water savings.
"You had to look at value for money, there were some projects that never got done, that were going to be a lot more expensive than that,' Mr Anderson said.
"These works still need to be done, it's a matter of how you finance them."
Mr Anderson said the projects covered system upgrades, which would ensure water didn't come out of the consumptive pool for seasonal determinations, so it wouldn't affect irrigators.
"But they have to stand up to the same protocols that apply to any of these projects - it's system saving, but they still have to be verified.
"Unless that process is followed up, it will start to impinge on the reliability of seasonal determinations."
He said he believed it would meet the criteria of neutral, or positive, socio-economic benefits.
Shepparton regional irrigator Craig Reynolds said he expected the money to be spent on projects that would help find Victoria's share of the 450GL environmental water, still to be recovered.
"It's just another stage of modernisation, really," Mr Reynolds said.
Many irrigators did value flexibility and extra flow rates, provided through Connections, as that was making their businesses more productive.
"But those benefits come at a higher cost, wth less water," he said.
There were areas of the GMID, which were never included in Connections.
'GMW have had to come up with a plan - but I think the problem with developing a project, in the midst of a drought, is like trying to do flood mitigation works, when you are flooded," he said.
The best time to plan for drought was during a flood, while working on water use mitigation projects should happen when it was flooding.
"GMW had to come up with a plan to bring those areas up to standard."
Mr Fennessy said irrigators could be assured the projects met the socio-economic test.
"This would not be coming out of the consumptive pool, it will be targeting system losses," he said.
But he said he could not guarantee further works might be needed in the future.
"Will this modernise all of the system, no, this is not going to finish the modernisation of the system," he said.
"There are parts of the system where you may not modernise, it wouldn't be value for money.
"They are being underutilised at the moment, and you would question whether or not you would spend money on them."
That didn't mean there may not be a need to prioritize and optimise other parts of the system, in the future.
"We have always been very clear, we are targeting system losses, this is water that has been lost within the delivery system at the moment, it is not taking water out of the consumptive pool.'
GMW told WSC chairs it was well positioned to deliver the works by leveraging the processes and systems developed for the Connections Project.
"This includes governance arrangements, statutory approvals, management systems, operating procedures and procurement arrangements."
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