Water is currently a headline act in national politics, but outside the meetings, drafting committees, and inter-state argy bargy over how a deal on the Murray Darling Basin should work, is anything actually happening?

The PMs announcement of a $10bn plan to save the Murray Darling Basin had the appearance of action, but months later the Victorian government remains in firm opposition to the proposal, leaving the deal — and the Basin — high and dry.

“We’re quite shocked to see that, after five months of negotiations, we’re back to square one, back to a total referral of powers,” Victorian Premier Steve Bracks said yesterday. “It appears this final incarnation of legislation has made this a project that’s dead in the water.”

Bracks’ words illuminate perhaps the real problem facing the Murray Darling — bureaucratic inaction. While the scale and urgency of the problem is widely accepted, corrective action at ground level remains years away.

“I think it’s reasonable to say there’s no action, or limited action on addressing these issues,” Matt Ruchel, Manager of Land and Water at the ACF, told Crikey.

“Action on addressing the Murray Darling has been on the table for quite a long time. There’s been the first step initiatives for the Living Murray, for example, but we still haven’t seen any water returned through that process. They submitted to that in 2004 and they’re supposed to return 500 billion litres by mid 2009, and they’re not on track to achieve that.”

Ruchel says the PM’s initial plan was precisely what the Basin needs, but there has since been a “backsliding” from all parties — including Victoria — on the details, leading to further negotiation and delays. According to Greens Senator Rachel Siewert, that can be attributed partly to rushed policy making.

“This plan was hastily put together following the water summit in November 2006. There was no consultation with State Government’s, key Government agencies or many water experts. Government agencies in estimates hearings have been unable to provide any detail costings, justification for water savings or explanation on targets for return of water,” Siewert told Crikey.

The PM’s own allies are agitating in unhelpful ways. The Nationals, despite the obvious reliance of their constituents on a steady water supply, have complicated the process by making calls against voluntary water buybacks, saying that it could result in people leaving the land. At the time of the PM’s announcement, Mark Vaile came out the week the PM announced the plan and contradicted him on the money allocated for buybacks, saying it was a last resort and wouldn’t be used.

All of this paper shuffling has left many on the fringe of the process throwing their heads back in frustration.

“Time is running out,” says a statement from a coalition of leading environmental groups today. Comprising the ACF, Environment Victoria, Conservation Council of South Australia, Nature Conservation Council of NSW, Queensland Conservation, Inland Rivers Network and the Total Environment Centre, the group warns that “the process is being rushed through without proper consultation” and may not deliver “a long-term solution to the basins problems. As a consequence, the federal government and the draft bill could repeat past mistakes and entrench business as usual.”

In this context, “business as usual” may be akin to death by a thousand paper cuts.