The Murray Darling Basin Plan is a historic agreement between the state and federal governments to save Australia’s most important river system. The A$13 billion plan, signed more than a decade ago, is supposed to curb the water taken by farmers and communities, and ensure the environment gets the water it needs.
But now, less than a year from the scheduled time of the plan, it is in terrible disarray. Projects are not provided. Governments cannot agree on who gets the water, or how. All the while, water in the Murray-Darling Basin will become scarcer as climate change worsens.
The Albanese government was elected on a promise to support the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. But earlier this month, Environment and Water Minister Tanya Plibersek admitted the plan “goes too far” and requires a “course correction.”
I have studied and advocated for sustainability measures in the Murray-Darling Basin for 35 years. Here, I outline five steps needed today to ensure the health of the river system and the people who depend on it.
A refresher: What is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan?
The Murray-Darling Basin covers about one-seventh of Australia’s land area: most of New South Wales, parts of Queensland, South Australia and Victoria, and all of the Australian Capital Territory. These include the Murray River and Darling River/Baarka and their tributaries.
These lands and waters are the traditional lands of more than 40 Indigenous nations. Approximately 5% of the basin consists of floodplain forests, lakes, rivers and other wetland habitats. A lot of water is taken from the rivers to supply about three million Australians, including to irrigate farms.
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan came into law in 2012, under the Labor government. It is due to be fully implemented and audited by the end of June 2024.
The plan limits the amount of water that can be withdrawn from the basin. It aims to improve the condition of the freshwater ecosystem and maintain the social and economic benefits of irrigated agriculture.
Under the plan, 3,200 billion liters per year will be returned to the rivers—about 14% of the total surface water in the basin.
Water is usually obtained by buying back water rights from farmers. About 450 billion liters will be obtained through water improvement projects.
The plan was amended twice to reduce the amount of water taken from farmers. The first change, made for questionable reasons, reduced the water recovery target to 70 billion liters a year. The second reduced it by 605 billion liters, where the water will be recovered through 36 water-saving offset projects.
In addition, the governments of Victoria and NSW are committed to reaching agreements with farmers so that water for the environment can safely flow from river channels and across privately owned floodplains, to fill many swamps.
So how’s the plan?
Things are not good. As of November last year, offset projects are likely to provide between 290 and 415 billion liters of the 605 billion liters needed. And very little water reached the floods.
And of the 450 billion liters that can be obtained through water-efficiency projects, only 26 billion liters were obtained.
This means that of the 3,200 billion liters of water a year that will be returned to nature, only 2,100 billion liters have been achieved since March this year—in addition to the small amount of water expected from offset projects, if it is can be given.
In a meeting in February this year, the country’s water ministers failed to agree on how to meet the plan’s deadline.
As governments wavered, the Murray-Darling rivers and floods suffered. In the last decade, millions of fish have died in mass die-offs. Toxic algae blooms, wildlife and waterfowl decline in numbers and wetlands are drained. These are all signs that too much water is being removed from the system.
So how do we return to the basin plan? Below, I identify the top five priorities.
1. NSW needs to get its act together on water plans
Crucial to the implementation of the broader basin plan are the 33 “water resource plans” created by the states. These plans bring the basin plan into legal force and detail how much water will be taken from the system and how it will be divided between users such as farmers, communities and the environment.
NSW must develop 20 plans. Currently, only five are in place. At least seven NSW plans have recently been withdrawn to be redrafted.
Until this is done, key steps in the basin plan cannot be implemented. The new NSW Minns government must prioritize the remaining water resource plans and get them accredited by the Commonwealth government.
2. Federal water purchases must increase
The Albanese government has taken steps to improve water recovery under the plan, such as consulting with stakeholders and restarting water purchases. But it should do more.
NSW and Victoria will almost certainly miss the 2024 deadline to deliver all the infrastructure projects they have promised to recover 605 billion liters of water.
The federal government is legally obligated to—and must—buy more water from farmers to cover any gaps. It also needs to get more than 400 billion liters of water to fill the shortage of water improvement projects.
For this to happen, a cap during the Coalition must be removed from 1,500 billion liters to enable the federal government to buy more water from farmers.
3. Reject questionable water conservation projects
At least six water-saving projects look set to miss the deadline.
This included a large project proposed by the previous NSW government to reduce evaporation in the Menindee Lakes, which seemed doomed.
Another Yanco Creek project in NSW has also fallen through, and four of nine projects in Victoria have been put on hold.
In addition, the ecological merit of these projects is opposed-as is the scientific strength of the proposed auditing method. These projects should be abandoned in favor of reconnecting the rivers to their floodplains.
4. Reconnecting rivers and floodplains
In order for floodplains to function, they must be constantly inundated with water. Currently, only 2% of these parts of the basin are flooded annually by managed flows (or in other words, deliberate water releases by the authorities).
The federal government holds water for this purpose. Water delivery requires compensation for owners of flooded properties, as well as upgraded roads, bridges and levee banks. Flood management can benefit landowners, such as reducing the effects of natural floods. But governments need to do a better job of communicating these benefits to gain support.
The federal government needs NSW and Victoria to help implement their agreement for irrigating the plains, but this cooperation has been very slow.
5. Make information transparent
The data and modeling used to manage water in the basin is complex and often not available to the public.
In its final report of 2019, a South Australian royal commission on the Murray-Darling Basin was highly critical of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. The report found that the authority failed to act on the “best available science” in determining how much water to return to the environment, and withheld modeling and other information that should have been made public.
Making such information freely available is essential for accountability and to build public trust.
Time for tough decisions
Each key element of the basin plan encountered problems in the implementation phase. The five steps I have outlined are essential to correcting this.
Attention should also now be focused on a review of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which is legally required by 2026. As well as addressing the problems detailed above, it should address two major issues which crucially ignored in the plan so far: the lack of Natives. water rights, and water loss due to global warming and other environmental changes.
If the Albanese government is to keep its election promise to deliver the plan, tough decisions—and trade-offs—will be required.
Provided by The Conversation
This article is reprinted from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Citation: In less than a year, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is in a terrible mess. Five steps needed to fix it (2023, July 18) retrieved 19 July 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-07-year-murray-darling-basin-dreadful-mess.html
This document is subject to copyright. Except for any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without written permission. Content is provided for informational purposes only.