The big questions facing Murray Darling Basin Plan

Murray Darling Basin Plan on brink after disallowance motion

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Where the Murray meets the Darling. The Basin Plan hangs in the balance after the Senate voted to block changes to the Basin Plan to reduce water recovery on the Northern Basin by 70 gigalitres.

Where the Murray meets the Darling. The Basin Plan hangs in the balance after the Senate voted to block changes to the Basin Plan to reduce water recovery on the Northern Basin by 70 gigalitres.


Has Australia's most controversial water reform gone belly up?



Finally that most political of water reforms, the Murray Darling Basin Plan, has boiled down to its essence: politics.

A partisan action in the Senate to block the Northern Basin amendment to reduce recovery by 70 gigaltires set off an equal and opposite partisan reaction and now the states are split and the Plan is a dead duck unless something spectacular can be done to save it.

Here’s a reminder of what has happened last week when the Senate voted 32 to 30 in favour of a disallowance against the Murray Darling Basin Authority’s (MDBA) Northern Basin review, which found about 200 jobs would be saved with similar environmental outcomes, if the water recovery volume was reducedfrom 390GL to 320GL, with the remainder supplemented by ‘toolkit measures’ such as infrastructure works. 

Perhaps the most constructive thing to be done at this date is list the unknowns and try to cut through the media coverage to date.

The Basin Plan hinges on two types of of water recovery: a suite of direct recovery programs to buy entitlements from irrigators, and dozens of individual infrastructure works that save water buy helping it move more efficiently - either downstream or into environmental assets like wetlands.

South Australia has always been suspicious of the upstream state’s commitment to the river asking questions such as did buybacks come from phantom, or unused, licences, or do the infrastructure works merely look good when modelled on paper?

Political questions

Restructuring the Basin Plan and/or the MDBA will mean delays to water recovery in the Northern Basin recovery process. Common sense dictates NSW and Queensland will not be overly amenable to a redouble their efforts to make up for time lost in the Senate disallowance motion.

How long will water recovery be delayed? Will the pause be justified in environmental outcomes, given the environment's pressing need for water, even if more is ultimately recovered?

Water scandals centering on the Barwon-Darling catchment in north west NSW have undermined confidence in the Basin Plan and NSW’s role in it. The state has implemented a compliance Water Reform Action Plan, including former Murray-Darling Basin Authority chairman and Labor Minister Craig Knowles, as have the MDBA. However, many Labor and Greens senators said confidence in the system was still lacking.

What extra compliance measures would a state or federal Labor government implement in NSW? Would it be affordable and who would pay for it? And why would NSW agree to an alternate program given it has already invested in its reforms?

The Greens, Labor and conservationists say the disallowance motion to block the Northern Basin reduction allows the Basin Plan to continue unchanged.

NSW and Victoria say the MDBA is the umpire and the reduction opponents walked away when a decision did not go their way.

There are many questions yet to be answered. Here are the big ones as I see it.

  • Even if Labor wins the next federal election and recasts the MDBA in a form it is happy with, how can it continue to be an independent arbiter in the fraught interstate negotiations?
  • NSW and Victoria rightly point out they have complied with all elements of the Basin Plan to date, and that all elements including the process of the Northern Basin reviewed were agreed to through painstaking interstate negotiations at the Ministerial Council.
  • When and if the Basin Plan is rebooted, how can the MDBA be the independent arbiter?
  • Would SA object if NSW or Victoria rejects an action of the MDBA and lobbies federal parliament to block water recovery? Will the upstream states turn the attention on claims of cynical water management downstream?

What of the River?

So much remains up in the air it is hard to know where to start.

The Basin Plan’s overall 3200GL recovery target is comprised of 2750Gl of ‘downwater’ and 450GL of ‘upwater’.

The downwater includes a package of projects that swap 605GL of water recovery for investment in infrastructure projects to move water more efficiently, agreed to at the Ministerial Council but yet to be built.

The Senate has a second disallowance motion before it, due for a vote on May 7, to reject the MDBA’s approval of the state’s proposed offset projects.

While the Northern Basin adjustment can come back for another vote, if the offset projects are rejected, legislated deadlines in the Basin Plan would force the states into direct recovery from irrigation.

Scientists and conservationists calls’ became more strident to reform the Basin Plan in the lead up to the disallowance vote.

At the same time, good commodity prices and upbeat prospects for a range of irrigated crops put many Basin farmers in the best position for many years to participate in funded water recovery schemes.

Conservationists and scientists argue the 3200GL is insufficient, and water recovery does not have severe the economic impacts that are sometimes touted.

The Wentworth Group says an independent oversight committee is needed, and that the Basin Plan is failing to deliver for the environment.

Other scientists and farm groups argue water recovery is only one of a suite of measures needed to address the river systems environmental woes, which include feral carp and dwindling native fish.

The Basin Plan could come to a shuddering halt, or it could stagger on. Once again, many questions remain.

  • Will SA continue to invest in water recovery (bearing in a mind the state election on March 17 could precipitate a change of government)? Will the federal government continue to invest Commonwealth funds in SA?
  • Will NSW, Victoria and Queensland make good on their pledge to “go it alone” with the Basin Plan (this may not be as unlikely as it sounds, given the states are already deep into offset project plans. For example NSW has already kicked off construction of its Broken Hill water supply pipeline, which is closely linked with an offset project at Menindee Lakes)?

Will it be it worth it? 

That is ultimate question which could take years to answer.

The Basin Plan is a water recovery program to re-balance an over-allocated irrigation system and there is only one river system and dwindling time to help it before the next devastating drought.

Even if all the criticisms of the Basin Plan and MDBA are correct, it still remains to be seen if their disallowance motion was better than sticking the course to 3200GL and then coming back for more, or at least waiting until a change of government and reforming from within.

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