Getting the $13 billion Murray-Darling Basin Plan back on track

Getting the $13 billion Murray-Darling Basin Plan back on track

Hot Topics in Ecology

Getting the $13 billion Murray-Darling Basin Plan back on track

Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, Australia Square Sydney
The condition of Lake Alexandrina at the lower reaches of the Murray River in South Australia has improved since this photo was taken at the end of the millennium drought in 2009. However, freshwater flow through to the Coorong estuary was inadequate in 2015/16. Photo by Peter Cosier.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan, agreed by the Australian Parliament in 2012, was to recover 3,200 GL of water for the environment from an annual consumptive use of 13,623 GL, or to implement projects that deliver ‘equivalent’ outcomes. While this volume failed to meet minimum requirements for a healthy basin, Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s modelling demonstrated the Plan could result in improvements in river health. A healthy Murray-Darling Basin supports more than 30,000 wetlands, including 16 of Australia’s 65 Ramsar-listed wetlands. The Basin is home to over 285 native species of fishes, waterbirds, mammals, frogs, turtles, and 124 families of macroinvertebrates, including species that are nationally threated or protected by international agreements. 

Five years in, two thirds of the 3,200 GL has been recovered, but progress on water recovery has slowed. Most of the water recovered to date has resulted from water reforms prior to the Basin Plan; only 530 GL has been recovered in the past five years. Basin-wide monitoring in 2015/16 showed no overall improvement in the condition of river systems although there were local improvements in salinity, water quality, and abundance and breeding success of freshwater species including plants, frogs, birds and fish. Freshwater flows into Ramsar-listed Coorong coastal lagoon, and Lakes Alexandrina and Albert Wetland were inadequate compared with flows needed to support the ecosystem.

Pressure has been exerted on governments to reduce water recovery targets. In May 2018, the Senate voted to allow irrigators to retain 19% of water earmarked for the environment under the Basin Plan (605 GL of 3,200 GL), on the basis of offset projects proposed by state governments worth $1.3 billion. The Wentworth Group's assessment of 37 proposed offset projects showed that 25 projects are not of sufficient quality to give the Australian public confidence they will deliver genuinely equivalent outcomes, 11 require more information for proper assessment and just one project has capacity to deliver equivalent outcomes to the river basin. Implementation of inadequate offsets would effectively guarantee continued degradation of our shared natural heritage.

On the basis of our review, we believe five actions are necessary for the Basin Plan to be implemented in full by 2026:

1. Communicate a detailed schedule for recovery of the full 3,200 GL;

2. Guarantee recovery of the full 3,200 GL or genuinely equivalent outcomes;

3. Ensure that water recovered achieves measurable improvements to the river system;

4. A regional development package that puts communities at the centre of reform; and

5. Detail a risk management strategy for a future with less water.

Hot Topic Lead Author: 
Name: Assoc. Prof. Jamie Pittock
Phone: 0407 265 131

Date approved: 
Friday, May 18, 2018 - 16:12
ID Title Location Type
9597 Pittock J., et al. (2013) Beguiling and risky: ‘environmental works and measures’ for wetland conservation under a changing climate. Hydrobiologia 708, 111-131. Murray Darling Basin Review
9596 Kingsford RT, et al. (2017) Continental impacts of water development on waterbirds, contrasting two Australian river basins: Global implications for sustainable water use. Global Change Biology DOI: 10.1111/gcb.13743 Murray Darling Basin and Lake Eyre Basin Natural experiment. Lake Eyre has 1 dam storing 14 GL and MDB has 240 dams storing 29 893 GL.
9595 Stoffels R.J., et al. (2016) 2014–15 Basin-scale evaluation of Commonwealth environmental water — Fish. Final Report prepared for the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office by The Murray–Darling Freshwater Research Centre. Murray Darling Basin Natural experiment.
9594 Goss, K. (2002) Report Card – Murray-Darling Basin – 2001. Water Science and Technology 45, 133-144. Murray Darling Basin Report
9593 Grafton R., et al. (2014) Water Planning and Hydro-Climatic Change in the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia. AMBIO - A Journal of the Human Environment. 43(8), 1082-1092. Murray Darling Basin Review using data and modeling
9592 Carmody E. (2017) Climate change is water change: Integrating water management, mitigation and adaptation laws and policies. Australian Environment Review 31 (10), 358-363. Relates to Basin Plan Critical review.
9591 Bino G., et al. (2015) Prioritizing Wetlands for Waterbirds in a Boom and Bust System: Waterbird Refugia and Breeding in the Murray-Darling Basin. PLoS ONE 10(7): e0132682. Murray Darling Basin Modeling study using data.
9590 van Dijk, A et al. (2013) The Millennium Drought in southeast Australia (2001–2009): Natural and human causes and implications for water resources, ecosystems, economy, and society. Water Resources Research 49, 1040-1057. Southeast Australia Review.
9589 Dept for Env and Heritage (2000) Coorong, and Lakes Alexandrina and Albert Ramsar Management Plan. South Australian Department for Environment and Heritage. Coorong and lower lakes, South Australia Review.
9588 Steinfield C. (2017) Progress towards environmental outcomes in the Murray-Darling Basin. Report for the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists. Basin-wide survey Review paper.
9587 Newall P.R., et al. (2015) Implications of environmental trajectories for Limits of Acceptable Change: a case study of the Riverland Ramsar site, South Australia. Marine and Freshwater Research 67, 738-747. Ramsar-listed Coorong and lower Murray river plus lakes and wetlands Simulation (i.e., review of historical data, future projection).
9586 Commonwealth Environment Water Office (2015-) Long Term Intervention Monitoring Project. Reports for 2014/15 and 2016/17. Murray Darling Basin Natural Experiment.
9585 Ye Q., et al. (2017) Long-term intervention monitoring of the ecological responses to Commonwealth Environmental Water Delivered to the Lower Murray River Selected Area in 2015/16 Lower Murray River, South Australia. Natural experiment.
9583 Murray-Darling Basin Authority (2017) Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism: Draft Determination Report. Basin states (SA, NSW, Vic, ACT) Review, and hydrological modelling using the Authority's 'river-modelling platform' to simulate changes in river hydrology affected by projects.
9581 Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists (2017) Review of Water Reform in the Murray-Darling Basin Murray Darling Basin Critical review
9580 Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists (2017) Submission to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority on SDL Adjustment Draft Determination Murray Darling Basin Critical review