The past year was a landmark year for the Murray-Darling Basin and the basin plan.
We are halfway through implementing this long-term, complex and essential reform.
For the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, this means moving from being the designers and implementers of the plan to becoming its reviewers, reporters, and regulators.
The year’s achievements included the successful passage of two sets of amendments through the Australian Parliament. One concerned changing some settings in the northern basin, introducing new measures to strengthen compliance and guard against water theft, others to protect water for the environment and another to reduce the volume of water that needed to be returned to the environment.
The other amendment concerned the southern basin and making water use smarter and more efficient. The environment stands to benefit from the delivery of infrastructure projects and changes to the rules about how the rivers are managed; and irrigators will benefit because 605Gl of water stays in consumptive use.
The passage of these amendments marks an important milestone in basin plan implementation. First, although it was sorely tested, multi-jurisdictional, bipartisan support was maintained. This is something to be celebrated. Twelve years is a long time to stay the course.
Without the commitment of all basin governments and both sides of politics, this critically important reform could not be achieved.
Secondly, the amendment process was written into the basin plan in 2012 so that the settings could change to reflect improvements in our understanding of how we can achieve a sustainable basin with the least impact on communities and industries. Far from the amendment process weakening the plan, it in fact demonstrates its strength.
Thirdly, it gives all basin jurisdictions a clear and ambitious work program for the next six years. I recognise that timelines are tight for states to deliver changes of this magnitude. I also recognise that there is continued commentary around the 450Gl that must be recovered by 2024 through efficiency measures that have a positive or neutral social and economic effect.
That said, looking back to 2017 there were justifiably widespread concerns about water theft and a lack of will on the part of some regulators to police it.
The MDBA and an independent panel conducted a review of compliance across the basin. That review identified an urgent need to strengthen compliance regimes. It led to a Compliance Compact that was endorsed by the prime minister, premiers and chief ministers at the Council of Australian Governments meeting in December.
NSW, which at the time of the review had the most catching up to do, has established an independent Natural Resources Access Regulator, which within a year has several successful prosecutions under its belt. NSW has also introduced a new metering policy, which began in December.
Along the way, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority also successfully tested the use of satellite imagery to keep watch over a major northern watering event, proving the viability of using satellite images to help enforce compliance.
Of course, heading into 2019 we are all watching the weather keenly. A long hot summer and the potential for a repeat of a dry winter are foremost in my thoughts. We are well aware of the tough time many people are facing due to the drought.
I urge water users to plan ahead for all scenarios, including the possibility that allocations do not improve and conditions stay dry.
The coming year will present plenty of challenges. But we head into the new year knowing the basin plan is on a stronger footing to deliver a healthy working river system for all Australians.
— Neil Andrew, Chair, Murray-Darling Basin Authority