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Farmers push back over Murray-Darling Basin uncertainty

Dean Lewins/AAP PHOTOS

Farmers have hit back at the government for trying to push through variations to the Murray-Darling Basin plan they said would ruin their businesses and communities.

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek is seeking federal parliament's support for a new plan negotiated with all basin states except Victoria after it was revealed the old one was not on track to meet water recovery targets after years of drought and overuse.

However, the minister is facing criticism of her proposed voluntary water buybacks.

Water buybacks allow farmers to sell their water directly to the government, but have been criticised for their ability to distort water prices and drive up the operating costs of farms.

NSW Farmers CEO Peter Arkle said it was causing "immense stress" in communities across the basin.

"(It) is another example of governments doing things to regional and farming communities rather than with them," he told reporters in Canberra on Thursday. 

He said ideas from farmers that would move the plan forward without the pain of buybacks had been binned by the minister.

"This is the wrong approach and farmers stand ready to take the government on," he said.

Opposition water spokeswoman Perin Davey said the proposed changes to the plan ripped up the bipartisanship under which it was negotiated over a decade ago.

She said the minister's de-linking of water recovery from some environmental objectives and economic safeguards for rural and regional towns "is actually admitting that this is going to hurt our communities".

There are also concerns that water buybacks from any part of the river will enable the minister to check a box saying she recovered the 450 gigalitres earmarked for the environment under the plan but that it wouldn't flow to where it is actually needed.

Senator Davey said complementary measures should include fish passage and vegetation management.

"We have seen that 'just add water' sometimes leads to very negative environmental outcomes," she said.

"This is no longer an environmental plan, this is a plan about taking licenses from productive use so that the minister can say, 'Look at me, I got the 450'."

Third and fourth generation mother and son rice farmers Margaret and Andrew Todd made the trek from the central NSW town of Murrami to protest the new plan outside the minister's Sydney office on Thursday.

The Todds have been farming for more than a century and say the plan will smash barley, wheat and canola production due to reduced access to water which would drive up food prices.

The government has also launched an independent review of water compliance in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Former Productivity Commission chair Peter Harris will lead the review, which will report back to the government by January and is aimed at ensuring the Inspector-General has the requisite powers.

The review has been welcomed by Acting Inspector-General of Water Compliance Daniel Blacker.

"Our independence is crucial to ensuring Murray-Darling Basin resources are being managed transparently and with a high level of accountability," he said.