Dry times have been sorely testing communities and the environment in the northern Murray-Darling Basin for a long time.
Though the water outlook in the south is reasonable for the coming year, the low rate of inflows recently into the Murray River system and the need for block banks in the lower Darling signal the possibility of dry times arriving in the south of the basin as well.
The Bureau of Meteorology says there’s a 50:50 chance of the likelihood of El Nino developing in spring.
For a great many people, mention of El Nino sends us back 10 years to the millennium drought that changed how we all use water and still influences our view of water today.
It’s what gave rise to the nation’s agreement to share water in the Murray-Darling fairly so that the environment, farmers and communities can deal with the inevitable challenges thrown up by our variable climate.
We are clearly in a much better position than we were at the start of the millennium drought.
With its basin-wide approach to river management, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan works in the interests of everyone in the basin, not one particular state or one particular interest group.
Water for critical human needs has been prioritised above other water uses.
Water is now managed to sustain the environment outside the pool of water available to irrigators.
There are agreed triggers to share water under very dry scenarios.
With basin plan funding, irrigators are improving their water efficiency to help them manage better through dry times.
People can use the water market to manage their own business risks by selling or buying water, and many irrigators use carryover provisions to balance their year-on-year risk.
In the south, where Dartmouth Dam is close to 90 per cent full, the resource will help meet carryover commitments in the NSW Murray and underpin early season allocations in Victoria.
And recent flows into our storages, although lower than average, are better than they were three years ago, in 2015.
Through continued careful management, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority is working to ensure as healthy a position as possible for water storages this time next year.
If things continue to dry-off in the south in the coming year, it’s really important we remember why we have a basin plan.
Underpinning the plan is the right of water entitlement holders to use their water allocations as they see fit, whether it’s environment managers supporting river ecosystems or irrigators sustaining production.
The alternative is a river system that eventually can’t support anything.
Allocations are made for entitlements equally, regardless of whether they are held by irrigators or environmental water holders, but access to water is not a competition.
Pressures about water availability as the dry continues in the northern basin are a clear example of just how important it is that we stick to how water is shared as agreed in the basin plan.
While we all hope and pray that the drought in the north breaks and does not travel south, the MDBA is planning to best manage all scenarios.