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 Murray Darling Basin Authority (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 10 years ago 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 in to 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 Basin Plan amendments to the Commonwealth water minister for decision of Parliament. The amendment process was built into the Basin Plan in 2012 in recognition that the settings would need review as our understanding of the Basin improved. The MDBA’s job was to bring forward and assess the evidence and recommend any changes, which we did with the assistance of state governments as signatories to the Plan.
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. Importantly, our recommendation is contingent on the strong commitment from NSW and Queensland governments to deliver a range of works and measures, including better protection of environmental water in the northern basin.
The other amendment, currently with the Commonwealth minister for consideration 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, something the MDBA has been striving to achieve alongside communities across the Basin over the past five years.
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 Basin Plan’s recovery target of 2750 gigalitres. If parliament passes the 605GL amendment, there will be no further water recovery needed in the southern basin.
Pending the decision of the Australian parliament, 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.
The commitment of all governments and the MDBA to lift our game around compliance and enforcement matters will also help to build confidence going forward.
One thing is clear as we celebrate this five-year milestone: there’s no benefit in stalling the Basin Plan. 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, for no good purpose.
We’re on the right track, and 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 Murray Darling Basin Authority chairman.