Environmentalists have lashed Barnaby Joyce’s call to divert water to drought-stricken farmers, labelling the special drought envoy’s “kneejerk” plan as ill-informed.

The former Nationals leader made a splash as he kicked off his new job, calling for environmental water from the Murray-Darling Basin Plan to be used to grow fodder for stock.

“You either accept this is a national emergency and you’re going to do something distinct to deal with it or you just say ‘no, no, we really like the pictures of starving cattle’,” he told ABC radio on Tuesday.

“The water that is going to the environment is going past the irrigation properties that grow the fodder to keep cattle alive.”

But the Australian Conservation Foundation’s Paul Sinclair said the Murray-Darling river system was also suffering through the drought.

“Mr Joyce’s kneejerk and ill-informed reaction risks the health of flood plains, wetlands and wildlife, not to mention the communities downstream that rely on a living river for their livelihoods,” Dr Sinclair said.

He said water clawed back from irrigators cost the government billions, and needed to be used to make sure everyone could benefit from a healthy river.

Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young slammed Mr Joyce’s plan, saying he should ask his “corporate irrigator mates” to help drought-affected farmers.

“Barnaby Joyce has used his first day on the job to go back to his old tricks – trying to rip water off of the environment,” Senator Hanson-Young said.

Nationals cabinet minister Matt Canavan said the former agriculture and water minister’s plan should be considered.

“It’s almost like he was born for this role to be the drought envoy,” Senator Canavan told reporters in Sydney.

Mr Joyce insists he’s not eyeing off a return to the front bench after being handed extra responsibility.

“I really want to get stuck into this, not because of some ulterior plan, because the drought is there,” Mr Joyce said.

“I’m going to do my bit to help them with that and if that’s where it stops that’s where it stops.”

Mr Joyce was deputy prime minister until February when he was forced to quit amid a storm of controversy surrounding his affair with a staffer.

New Prime Minister Scott Morrison made him drought envoy on Sunday as he announced his ministerial team.