Almost three years on, has the Murray-Darling Basin Plan delivered on its promises?

The Institute interviewed two industry experts, with differing policy viewpoints, to gain their opinions on this issue

Dr Arlene Harriss-Buchan
Healthy Rivers Campaigner,
Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF)

Gavin McMahon
Chair, National Irrigators’ Council (NIC),
and Chief Executive Officer, Central Irrigation Trust

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan was signed into law at the end of 2012, and is now almost three years old. Do you believe the plan has resulted in improvements in the use and management of Basin water resources in a way that optimises social, economic and environmental outcomes?

Dr Arlene Harriss-Buchan, ACF
It’s too early to say whether the Basin Plan will ‘optimise’ environmental, economic and social outcomes but it has certainly improved the use and management of water across the Basin and is a big step in the right direction towards balancing water for nature and water for irrigation. Significant volumes of water recovered under the Basin Plan, often combined with state or community group water holdings, have already been used to improve the condition of wetlands, rivers, floodplains and the myriad of native plants and animal populations across the Basin. It will take a long time to fully understand and quantify the ecological outcomes attributable to the Basin Plan, but multiple benefits and positive outcomes are already well described and reported in many case studies.

The Basin Plan has also given a huge economic boost to rural areas. Over $2.5 million is spent in the Basin every single day in the future sustainability of irrigated agriculture. This investment will continue until 2019 and beyond through various funding packages. This is an enormous injection of public money into the irrigation sector as a direct consequence of the Plan.

Few people who live and work in the Basin would question that a healthy, working river underpins a host of industries, local economies and social and cultural values. The long-term social and cultural fabric of the Basin is tied to the successful implementation of the Plan. There is a need to improve the anticipated Aboriginal benefits from the Basin Plan and properly engage on the issue of cultural flows.

Gavin McMahon, NIC
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan will not be fully implemented until 2019. Consequently it is difficult to ascertain the impact of the Plan across the Basin around the use and management of Basin water resources regarding improving social, economic and environmental outcomes. The Commonwealth Environmental Water holder is amassing an extremely large portfolio of water and learning how to plan, deliver and monitor the use of that water for environmental and social outcomes. In some river reaches the benefits of this water is being realised.

National Irrigators’ Council (NIC) supports the significant investment made in upgrading and modernising irrigation systems producing some of the most efficient systems in the world. This investment provides short- and long-term benefits for communities. Water savings from infrastructure projects are shared, resulting in water being retained on-farm, contributing to direct employment in irrigated agriculture; it represents fewer job losses on farms and opportunities for important downstream processing industries. This employment provides the social and economic underpinnings of many communities in the Basin. This investment also provides short-term local stimulus during the construction phase of projects.

NIC has actively campaigned for a legislated 1500 gigalitre (GL) cap on water buybacks in the Murray-Darling Basin. Legislation now before the Australian Parliament providing for this measure reflects the government’s commitment to irrigated agriculture and its understanding of the benefits of water left in production.

More broadly however, communities dependent upon irrigated agriculture within the Basin fully understand the impacts the Basin Plan will have on the economies that drive their communities.

What aspects of the Basin Plan do you believe are in need of change, and what changes should be made?

Dr Arlene Harriss-Buchan, ACF
It took a long time and a huge effort by all stakeholders to achieve a Plan that has bipartisan support. ACF believes no big changes to the Plan should be contemplated at this point. Instead, energy and resources should be focused on completing what has been started and getting water use onto a sustainable footing so the nation’s most important Basin continues to support all the social, cultural, economic and environmental values for which it is recognised. No-one thinks the Basin Plan is perfect, but it’s good enough to be getting on with. Further delays and changes would undermine the original intentions and erode its widespread support.

We should of course strive to learn as we go, adopt new knowledge and information and adapt accordingly. Engagement with Basin communities must build on ‘localism’. It’s important that decisions, policies and assessments are based on an objective analysis of facts, data and evidence. People and economies in the Basin face many challenges, including commodity prices, input prices, exchange rates, drought and competition within the water market. Some people like to blame the Basin Plan for all manner of international, market and other challenges. Changing the Basin Plan midstream, as it were, would undermine its outcomes without fixing the problems some rural communities are facing.

Gavin McMahon, NIC
The major focus of the Basin Plan should be to complete the implementation in the manner that was promised to Basin communities. Investment in water recoveries should concentrate on infrastructure. All Basin governments must be held to account to ensure they have exhausted all opportunities.

Communities were promised a program of adaptive management and localism which has not been pursued or activated. Despite local feedback by Basin communities, through a range of mechanisms, this information is not adequately reflected in the reports generated by governments. Issues of concern include:

  • Constraints Management Strategy: the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) continues to rely on modelling parameters that are in some cases at odds with existing knowledge of maximum flow rates.
  • Long-term Diversion Limit Equivalent (LTDLE) factors: current reliability factors adopted by the Department of Environment and MDBA for reporting the yield of entitlement recovered in Macquarie and Gwydir Valleys are inconsistent with reliability measures derived from the hydrological modelling underpinning the MDBA’s determination of Sustainable Diversion Limits (SDLs).
  •  Northern Basin Review: community discontent that the Review process is unclear around desired objectives and outcomes.
  • 650 GL equivalence: the Plan provides for the up-water recovery target to be reduced by up to 650 GL through efficiency and supply measures; early modelling results are not encouraging; MDBA acknowledges it will not be able to model all proposals received from Basin states by the time specified in the Plan.

What are the key measures that should be used to judge whether or not the plan is achieving its objectives, and do you believe that adequate effort is being made to measure and monitor the performance of the Basin Plan?

Dr Arlene Harriss-Buchan, ACF
It’s hard to summarise what this looks like in a few words. Perhaps the acid test is whether or not the Murray-Darling survives the next drought without irreversible damage to valued environmental assets, the collapse of the irrigation industry and the loss of community confidence in the Basin’s future.

The National Water Commission, recently abolished by the Abbott Government, had the job of monitoring and auditing the implementation of the Basin Plan. The Commission’s demise, combined with the overall weakening of public institutional capacity via the erosion of funding and staff at Commonwealth and state levels, will have very serious consequences for future monitoring, auditing and evaluation of the Basin Plan. This requires remediation as a matter of urgency.

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority and Commonwealth Environmental Water Office have made good investments to date into their monitoring frameworks.

Gavin McMahon, NIC
Monitoring and measurement within the Basin Plan is episodic and lacks coordination. Contracted water recovery in the Murray-Darling Basin, is estimated at 1951.6 GL or 71% of the targeted 2750 GL. Yet, no baseline studies are available on the Basin’s environmental health, to understand the level of water recovery needed to meet environmental objectives.

We will determine whether the Plan was successful if changes in economic, social and environmental conditions within the Basin can be monitored before, during and after implementation.

Communities will no longer accept debates based on modelling but expect to see tangible positive outcomes.

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