RIVER YARNS: THE MURRAY-DARLING MYTHS: WEEK TWO
Talking about River Yarns
With assistance from the Walkley Foundation, McPherson Media Group has commissioned Jane Ryan, a consultant with long experience and deep knowledge of water and resource management in the Murray-Darling Basin, to unravel the complex issues surrounding the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
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Jane’s brief is to do so without the bias and hyperbole that has accompanied most commentary on the plan since its inception 14 years ago.
At a time when the Federal Government seeks to amend the plan to give effect to election promises to South Australia, Jane’s analysis will canvas what the plan has achieved already in the long history of resource management in the basin.
She explores the shortcomings of a political compromise on ‘a number’ for water recovery, when what is really required is a nuanced approach to securing the original ambitions for the plan.
In this second article in the series, Jane explains the Water Act underpinning the plan and highlights some of the issues that have led to a lack of trust in the design and implementation of the plan.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
It took a couple of years post the Howard Government’s original Murray-Darling Basin announcement and many attempts to get any legislation through parliament. It started with Malcom Turnbull’s negotiations with basin states to refer their powers to the Commonwealth for them to take over water management.
The states didn’t agree, and in the end, it was a different instrument that was passed in 2007, updated in 2008 and became the basis for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan negotiations.
Did you know the Commonwealth Water Act 2008 is primarily focused on the environment because of the legal need to use international obligations?
Allowing the Commonwealth Government to change constitutional matters requires either agreement from the states or from the community through a referendum. There have been times where the states have agreed that a particular matter has changed so considerably, that they require help.
Water, it seems, was not one of those matters and the Water Act 2005 accordingly had to be environment-first, relying on international obligations for wetlands and biodiversity.
Many commentators, including South Australian Senator Rex Patrick’s Royal Commission in 2018, have remarked on the discrepancy between the Act and the basin plan.
Without the support of the states, the Commonwealth Government is only able to step into water management when they have international obligations that are not being met.
While the legislation needs to evoke international environmental obligations, the basin plan is written as a document in a common water management approach. It endeavours to recognise the current water sharing arrangements and aims for balance between existing water users and the condition of the system, while outlining a plan to transition to new arrangements.
Many of the conversations have veered off here – yes, the basin plan doesn’t completely meet the sentiment of the Act, but no, it’s not because anyone is being corrupt. It’s because water cannot be managed by contemplating users in isolation – it is a complex system across vast environmental, social, cultural and economic landscapes which requires thinking through the cumulative impacts and opportunities for the whole basin in a way that can adjust to change.
Did you know that the Commonwealth Water Act incorporates the previous Murray-Darling Agreement, including the decision-making instrument of the Ministerial Council?
As far back as 1914, collaboration on how water resources in the basin would be managed was through formal agreement between the states. The Murray-Darling Agreement set out rules and plans for sharing water to support a reliable supply of water for communities and environments along the Murray River across NSW, South Australia and Victoria.
Over the next century, any updates to the Murray-Darling Agreement were made by the representatives from the states to deal with changing conditions and community needs. Before the Commonwealth Water Act, for instance, the states through the Ministerial Council made formal updates to the agreement to deal with the millennium drought. The long dry spell saw water managers face low rainfall and inflows previously unseen in the basin.
Currently the Ministerial Council, or MinCo as it is widely known, is still represented by state water ministers but now chaired by the Commonwealth water minister. Under the Commonwealth Act, it still has power to make formal decisions by unanimous vote of all members that become resolutions and incorporated into the basin agreement.
Basin decisions and agreements made prior to the Commonwealth Water Act have been honoured since 2009 as schedule 1 of the Act. Resolutions of MinCo have incorporated into the basin plan and are currently as important as the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement.
All of this appears to be chucked out the window with this new announcement of an ‘agreement’ that isn’t agreed to by all states and legislation that will overrule previous decisions in the Murray-Darling Agreement.
From 2009, implementing the Commonwealth Water Act and Basin Plan originally meant MinCo met as often as three to four times a year. Another sign that collaboration appears to have been downgraded – in a year with high levels of activity and decisions to be made, as of September 2023 MinCo has only met once this year.
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan
Initial stages of the basin plan development were overshadowed by some fiery community responses, highly political community meetings and loss of trust with significant changes to key directions in the plan.
Some less than clear aspects of the plan, such as inclusion of particular regions or methodologies used to calculate targets, are now spun into all sorts of conspiracy theories with differing perspectives about the starting points, boundaries, aims and targets.
Let’s dig into some little-known facts.
Did you know Adelaide isn’t in the Murray-Darling Basin?
If you believe some commentators, this is all about Adelaide’s drinking water and the state of the Coorong and the Lower Lakes at the Murray Mouth.
Did you know that Adelaide isn’t in the Murray-Darling Basin and that the state’s reliance on the Murray River takes its water through five pipelines for irrigation, industry and communities more than 800 kilometres away?
Communities and industry on the Yorke and Eyre peninsulas have been relying on Murray River water for decades now and, despite being on a similar latitude to Perth, desalination plants do not provide drinking water for the iron triangle.
Regional towns like Whyalla (21,000 people) and Port Augusta, Port Pirie and Port Lincoln (all with about 13,000 people each), all rely on water from the Murray River hundreds of kilometres away for their communities and economies.
Did you know the south-east region of South Australia used to provide freshwater into the Coorong’s lagoons?
The Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth are iconic for all Australians and have been part of the imagery used to ask fair-minded people to seriously consider the rationale for the basin plan.
The question around whether it is an estuarine system, or an unusual estuarine system dominated by freshwater, is argued by many. We note that most estuarine systems around Australia (or indeed internationally) are impacted by reduced freshwater reaching the mouth where they interact with marine systems.
The geomorphological history of the basin is important in that it reminds us how the natural system used to operate and helps those organisations tasked with rehabilitation to work out what success looks like.
For example, understanding the geology of the Mallee area has supported successful approaches to reduce salinity trends that looked ominous in the 1980s. With understanding, investment, monitoring and evidence-based rules, those trends have been halted for now and confidence has grown in the systems put in place.
For reasons known only to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, back in 2010 when the boundaries were drawn up, the south-east region within the basin was not included in the basin plan.
Presumably the redirection of flood and drainage waters in the 1990s from the area that naturally flowed into the Coorong lagoons meant that this catchment didn’t belong in the basin. There have been projects in this area funded under the basin plan as part of the supply measures.
In contrast, the terminal lakes catchment of the Victorian Wimmera area is counted in the Murray-Darling Basin, despite not being connected to the Murray and despite the basin’s focus on surface water flows for the Murray Mouth.
Despite this, the groundwater connection was enough to require a Water Resource Plan to be developed for the catchment. No such plan was required for the south-east region.
Did you know the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth are not the only internationally important landscape in the basin?
International obligations are an important part of the basin plan because of how the Act is set up.
The basin is home to significant remnant wetlands nominated under the Ramsar convention, including those in the Riverland in South Australia, large-scale Macquarie marshes and Gwydir wetlands, as well as areas in the Murray public estate such as Hattah-Kulkyne and Barmah Forest.
Most action plans developed for these important places recognise the massive effort that has been put into regulate the river and disconnect its floodwaters from land where people live and farm.
It means that the ability to deliver water is identified as the key risk to most water-dependent landscapes, along with water availability.
In 2002, the first step of the Living Murray recognised this independence, identifying that with the 500 gigalitres of water recovery for important floodplain wetlands, that works would be required to rehabilitate the flow patterns that these places need to thrive.
In rehabilitating the Coorong and its lagoons, just like other basin significant landscapes, it is critical to understand the flow patterns required by its coastal lagoon landscapes and reliant migratory shore birds.
With the two major Murray dams, weirs and barrages forming the upstream infrastructure in the system, the river’s flow patterns are disrupted and operationally it’s extremely difficult to push high volumes of water in from the top of the system down through to the Coorong lagoons and the Murray Mouth.
Just like other iconic sites in the basin, the frequency and length of flows have been seriously altered, and the number of medium floods has been cut out of the system.
The Coorong needs more frequent floods for longer periods of time – today’s highly modified system is unable to deliver this and holding more water in dams or dribbling it down the river will not restore these patterns.
A fact-finding series exploring the Murray-Darling Basin
Hopefully you learnt something you didn’t know by reading this – this series of articles explores some of the key themes of the Murray-Darling Basin.
By unpacking some of the complexity we hope to move the current conversation to have more a broader understanding rather than oversimplified rhetoric.
This is one issue that understanding each other does make a difference and where party politics can get in the way of finding common ground.
There will always be politics in the way water is managed. Water is both a universal right and something that needs to have value place on it. It is both a scarce resource and a plentiful bounty to base whole community social and economic lives.
Around the world, water managers face the same challenges of continuous improvement to understand the resource and its catchment, all the while adapting to community expectations.
There are many places around that world that are particularly interested in how Australia is dealing with less water, more people and a need to change water sharing arrangements.
In this series of fact-finding stories, we will be exploring some of the Murray-Darling Basin timelines, the ecological landscapes, the irrigation systems and the communities that live along the Murray. We hope you’ll travel along some of Australia’s most beloved river country.
NEXT WEEK: The timeline for the basin plan.
About the author
Jane Ryan — a former school captain at Notre Dame College in Shepparton — was deputy chief of staff to former Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville, and has worked in senior roles in water resources and catchment management, including Director of Rural Water Policy and Programs, Strategic Engagement Manager for River Health and Consultation Manager for the Northern Region Sustainable Water Strategy.
During the millennium drought, Jane was involved in the development of the key water policies that remain the cornerstone of water management in northern Victoria, including environmental water recovery targets, carryover arrangements and changes to allocation water policy for the Goulburn and Murray systems in response to climate change.