- Opinion Piece -

Navigating the Final Months of Murray Darling Basin Plan

As the dust settles on the federal election, we know we have a new Labour government, but we don’t know if it will govern as a majority. We knew going into this election that the Murray Darling Basin Plan would conclude in 2024, but we don’t know whether the new water minister will have the authority and appetite to review the Plan.

In short, the legacy of the Murray Darling Basin Plan is at stake. The incoming Government and especially the new Minister for Water, in partnership with the state governments, will define how Australia and the basin communities reflect on this monumental initiative.

The Murray Darling Basin Plan was an extremely ambitious undertaking. It was designed during the final years of the millennium drought and agreed amongst the states and the commonwealth. The timing, the process to reach agreement and the science of the day greatly influenced its design – from the emphasis on gigalitres recovered, to the mix of water recovery projects and their potential to achieve their water savings targets.

At this stage the Plan’s targets are summarised as 2075 GL of water recovery, 605 GL from supply offset projects, and a further 450 GL of upwater projects.

There is good news. In February this year the MDBA confirmed that 2,106 gigalitres (GL) of water has already been recovered – beating the first of these targets. Around two-thirds of the second target – water recovery from supply offset projects – has also been secured.

As we head into the final stages of the Plan, there is an estimated 605GL shortfall that’s made up of the balance of the second target, and almost all of the third target – the 450GL of upwater.

The current Plan allows for the shortfall to be recovered through water buybacks which means regional communities carry all the risk for projects that fail to achieve their targets.

And this is where the Plan and its legacy begin to unravel.

The GMID Water Leadership Forum has outlined what we believe to be the best path forward for all basin interests – communities, environment, industry, and politicians at state and federal level. It’s also the most prudent financial approach given the billions of dollars already invested.

The way forward is built on the simple premise that over the past decade water users, managers and regulators have seen and learned. Today we know more about what has worked, what has failed, and the unintended consequences that have emerged along the way for the environment and communities up and down the system.

Our message to an incoming government is simple. It’s time to apply these lessons, to update the tools in the Plan’s water recovery toolkit, and to start measuring and evaluating the improved health of our rivers and waterways in terms of outcomes – not just gigalitres.

So where do we begin. Firstly, water buybacks. Over the life of the Plan we have exhausted the design options for water buybacks. Every attempt has further confirmed how they erode the resilience of our food producing regions, distort water markets, and undermine the irrigation and infrastructure upgrades and investments already made by state and federal governments. In these final years of the Plan, we should be finessing the gains already achieved, not unwinding them. It’s time for governments to retire this tool and this thinking from the water recovery tool kit.

Secondly let’s update the toolkit to enable the design and delivery of projects that build on what’s worked – not continue to pursue projects that won’t. This also gives us an important opportunity to prioritise off-farm efficiency projects that future-proof our regions in times of scarcity.

Third, lets reset the timelines for further water recovery. Again, the reasons are simple – the current system can’t deliver the additional water where and when it’s needed without damaging the very water ways and rivers we are trying to restore. Identifying and addressing these delivery constraints is key and without action will remain a handbrake on realising the benefits of further water recovery.

The fourth and final step is to ensure the socio-economic neutrality test continues to underpin every aspect of the Plan’s implementation. Projects have and are continuing to be delivered that meet this test.  It is this test and the discipline with which it is applied that will determine the legacy of the Plan, as well as the legacy of the governments and the ministers at the helm in 2024.

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Lindy Nieuwenhuizen

Lindy Nieuwenhuizen