Murray-Darling Plan enters a pivotal time

For people reliant on the water resources of the Murray-Darling Basin—and that includes several million of us—the close of 2017 was notable for several reasons.

The MDBA finalised a number of commitments crucial to the continued roll-out of the Murray­–Darling Basin Plan. They affect the amount of water available to farmers, the provision of water needed by the environment, the enforcement of rules around water management and confidence that the plan is on track.

Now is a pivotal time for the water reform that began when Prime Minister John Howard laid the groundwork for a strengthened commonwealth role to manage the basin as one river system, supported by water security measures to ensure that water is shared fairly in the national interest.

Our evaluation of the Basin Plan five years into the 12-year implementation indicates that the plan is on track. We’re seeing a turnaround in environmental health at the local level and the basin economy has grown. Some industries and towns have had a tougher time than others, but we’ll have a clearer picture about what this means in the next few months.

In 2017, the MDBA proposed two sets of plan amendments to the commonwealth water minister for decision of parliament. 

One amendment involves reducing water recovery in the north by 70 gigalitres, based on a better understanding of the science and socio-economics around water in that part of the Murray–Darling Basin. Our recommendation is contingent on the strong commitment from NSW and Queensland governments to deliver a range of measures, including better protection of environmental water in the northern basin.

The other amendment proposes that 605 gigalitres less water be recovered from irrigators in the southern basin by implementing state-initiated projects that achieve equivalent environmental outcomes. This would work in concert with investments to supply up to 450 gigalitres to the environment. Both elements are written into the plan, and they stand or die together.

One allows more water to be returned to the environment without adverse economic impacts. The other keeps water in production as long as the environment is protected. They stand to benefit both irrigators and the environment.

If the South Australian, NSW and Victorian governments have not implemented projects that deliver 605 gigalitres in environmental benefits by June 2024, the water must still be recovered. Likewise, if the proposal does not pass the Australian parliament, the existing targets remain.

There will be one brief window to seize the win-win opportunity to adjust the plan, and that could be early this year.

It also means we’re within striking distance of the plan’s recovery target of 2750 gigalitres. If parliament passes the 605GL amendment, no further water recovery in the southern basin will be needed.

Pending parliament’s decision, our work in 2018 and 2019 will concentrate on supporting the states to revise their water resource plans and to design and implement projects they have committed to.

This compact between governments, supported by substantial funding, is a rare thing, and if we pause now there’s a real risk the contract will fall apart.

While there are hard yards ahead, the next 18 months will deliver greater certainty for basin communities. The health of the river system relies on it.

Neil Andrew is Chair of the Murray–Darling Basin Authority