Opinion

The year ahead not cut and dried for the Murray River

By Country News

The one thing I’m hearing most from people about the Murray River is the great expectation of more water in the year ahead.

More water for growing crops, for town supply, for fish and bird breeding.

It’s something we all hope for and one of the scenarios we plan for as river operators.

After more than two years of seeing our water reserves steadily drop, things have now started to turn around.

The dams have inched above the halfway mark and the forecast for spring is pointing to more rain and overall better conditions.

Soils are already wet thanks to good autumn rain, which will boost future runoff into streams, rivers and dams.

This will bring some peace of mind to our river communities and farmers.

The state governments, who allocate their share of this resource to their water licence holders, have already started to build the improved outlook into their allocation announcements.

There’s a host of things they need to account for first, such as drinking water and having enough base flow for the river to run, but the expectation of further allocation increases is already showing up in the downward trend for water prices.

When the states have more water available it means more water to be delivered out of the dams to farmers wanting to grow crops.

Managing that delivery on behalf of the state governments is the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s job and requires careful coordination to get water to where it needs to be.

In our 2020-21 Annual Operating Outlook released this month, we point out that there’s an increased risk of failing to be able to deliver water orders in late summer or autumn if weather conditions fall into the ‘moderate’ or ‘near average’ scenarios.

This might seem counterintuitive, but in those conditions it’s a fine line between too wet and not wet enough — the localised rain wouldn’t satisfy crop requirements and with growers having higher allocations this year they would need water sent from the headwater dams on the Murray or traded from elsewhere in the system.

Combined, these factors would put pressure on space in the river channel and mean our ability to move water through the system may not match the demand.

These pressures are heightened by the constraints on water movement such as the Barmah Choke and state-imposed operational or trade restrictions.

Transfers from the Goulburn River to the Murray is an example, where environmental damage has been caused by consistently high flows needed to deliver water traded out of the Goulburn Valley to downstream developments.

The 40 Gl limit per month on the transfer of water during summer and autumn recently introduced by the Victorian Government will help to reduce that impact.

However, the risk of shortfall remains as we expect the river system as a whole to be at near-full capacity as water licence holders make the most of the return to favourable conditions.

As river managers we hope for good rain but continue to plan for a range of conditions.

A year is a long time in river operations and nobody knows for sure what the weather will bring, despite the better forecasting and new policies in place.

If conditions revert to a drier scenario, or a wetter one, we need to be ready for it. And regardless of the scenario, our commitment remains to operate the system as effectively and efficiently as possible.

- Murray-Darling Basin Authority river management executive director Andrew Reynolds