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Goal 5 Apply the best available science and knowledge to the management of the Murray–Darling Basin

Role of the MDBA

The MDBA collects and collates the best available data, knowledge and analysis to inform its decisions, and uses this information to guide the implementation, monitoring, evaluation and reporting of the Basin Plan.

Desired outcomes

  • Evidence-based policy and decision-making founded upon robust and defensible data
  • The MDBA has a deep understanding of the social, economic, cultural, hydrological and ecological conditions of the Murray–Darling Basin
  • The MDBA collaborates and cooperates with external partners to generate data and knowledge which is then managed appropriately

2019–20 key activities

  • Completing the 2020 evaluation
  • Ensuring the best available science is applied to legislated reviews, evaluations and the management of risks (e.g. fish deaths, drought)
  • Sharing the right technical and scientific information across the MDBA at the right time to input into key decisions
  • Partnering with research institutes and other external entities to generate new knowledge and collect data in accordance with the MDBA’s Knowledge Acquisition Strategy
  • Planning and develop enhanced data and information communications technology systems, processes and frameworks
  • Providing more efficient data storage, access and retrieval

Source: MDBA Corporate Plan 2019-20 link

KPI 8 Leverage knowledge and understanding to make robust and defensible decisions

KPI: Leverage the MDBA’s deep understanding of environmental, social, cultural and economic considerations to make robust and defensible decisions

KPI result: Met

There are two measures to assess the extent to which KPI 8 has been achieved during 2019–20. Both measures were met: qualitative evidence shows the first measure was met; the second measure met the target of publishing the Basin Plan annual report.

To further demonstrate how collaborations, research and joint projects that generate a significant amount of data and knowledge are applied in the work of the MDBA, Case study 7: the Lower Lakes review has been provided. Gaining a deep understanding of the science of the Lower Lakes and sharing this understanding with the community has helped ensure community conservations and policy work in the Lower Lakes is founded on the best available science.

The MDBA supports evidence-based decision-making around water management and is committed to continually improving its knowledge base. The MDBA uses the best available science and knowledge sourced from a range of areas. These include:

  • Basin communities
  • scientific communities
  • research institutions
  • government departments
  • First Nations peoples
  • industry bodies.

Measure 1—Environmental, social, cultural and economic impacts factored into Authority decisions

Environmental, social, cultural and economic impacts are factored into Authority decisions

Target: Qualitatively assessed

Result: Met

The translation of knowledge from environmental, social, cultural and economic areas into policy and water management activities is woven through all the MDBA’s activities. The outcomes of this can be found in:

  • information published by the MDBA including technical reports, fact sheets and media materials including webinars, articles and presentations
  • information shared across agencies to support independent reviews such as the review undertaken by the Interim Inspector-General of Murray–Darling Basin Water Resources published on the Inspector-General website and the inquiry into Murray–Darling Basin water markets being undertaken by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and published on the commission’s website
  • the ongoing work of the Basin Plan Implementation Committee
  • how the River Murray System is operated, and environmental water prioritised and applied
  • the Authority communique as well as communiques from the Basin Officials Committee and Ministerial Council recognising water management activities in the Basin are often through multi-jurisdictional committees
  • activities of the advisory communities including the Basin Community Committee and the Advisory Committee for Social, Economic and Environmental Science which report at each Authority meeting.

Some specific examples of these activities are provided to demonstrate the depth of use of knowledge and consideration of impacts across the work of the MDBA.

In 2019, the MDBA worked closely with the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources in developing the Water Amendment (Indigenous Authority Member) Bill 2019 that added an Indigenous member to the Authority. The MDBA also pioneered working with First Nations on including cultural considerations into the development of environmental water use guidance which is discussed under measure 2.

Throughout 2019–20, substantial investment was made in incorporating best available science into key decisions support systems, such as the Source Murray Model and the hydrodynamic models for the Barmah–Millewa Forest.

Source Murray Model

The Source Murray Model is a relatively new tool that the MDBA uses to inform water management and water policy decisions. While having models for the Murray is not new, developing these models on the new software platform of Source is new, which offers improved specificity and functionality to allow better representation of Murray system.

During 2019–20, the MDBA continued to improve how the River Murray and associated tributaries are represented in the new Source Murray Models. Key improvements were:

  • including the salinity registers for the Basin Salinity Management 2030 (BSM2030) Strategy
  • including water sharing rules as per the Murray–Darling Basin Agreement to support river operations.
  • developing a Source Murray Operations Model for future use in river operations.

The MDBA also invested significant effort in updating the representation of irrigation and environmental water demands in the Murray and lower Darling system in the model. This improved reflection of current demands and behaviours will help with policy work on issues including:

  • capacity and shortfall risks across the River Murray system
  • the design and implementation of sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism projects.

The work on the Source Murray Model has also been used to support Basin governments to develop corresponding river models in Source to underpin the development and review of the water resource plans (WRPs). In this context, these river models are used for:

  • computing the annual permitted water take
  • demonstrating compliance with the long-term annual diversion limit for the take from regulated and major unregulated rivers.

Models used for computing annual permitted water take by Queensland, South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory and Victoria have been accredited by the MDBA. Support continues to be offered to New South Wales to develop their models to meet the requirements of the Basin Plan.

Hydrodynamic models

In 2019–20, there was considerable development of hydrodynamic models covering the Barmah–Millewa forests and the Edward–Wakool river system. The hydrodynamic models:

  • show the extent of inundation associated with proposed flows
  • form the basis for landholder discussions about the relaxation of constraints
  • help improve understanding of e-water accounting of losses and updating of hydrological relationships in the Source Murray Model.

These models were updated based on the best available information, including the latest information on landforms as well as river gauging information to assist with calibrating the models.

Reviewing policy in light of science

The translation of science to inform policy can be demonstrated through a range of activities at the MDBA. A few examples are:

  • reviewing ecological condition data and new science to inform the setting of Basin-scale environmental watering priorities, published on the MDBA website
  • improving how the MDBA communicates what it knows and what it does and what can make an impact for the community. This includes investment and focus on better understanding the community needs and concerns. The MDBA website has more information on how the MDBA is building its regional capability
  • supporting joint governments to better understand the pressure on the river system and options that can help alleviate these pressures, particularly on the Murray and Goulburn systems. The MDBA’s website has more information on the River Murray System Annual Operating Outlook
  • identifying and supporting the need for an independent review on the science of the Lower Lakes to ensure the MDBA is managing using the best available science. More information is provided in Case study 7.

 Lower Lakes review shows how science informs water management When the review into the science used to manage the Lower Lakes was published in April 2020, it did more than confirm that river managers were on the right track. The independence of the panel and their consultation with almost 100 technical experts showed the value of using the best available science and knowledge in decision-making. The Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth area (CLLMM) is a key part of the Murray–Darling Basin. It has significant importance for the Ngarrindjeri people and is an important environmental, social and economic national asset. The Lower Lakes are a significant part of a Ramsar-listed wetland. The drought and competing demands for water had contributed to concerns about how the Lower Lakes were being managed under the Basin Plan. In particular, some communities were questioning whether the lakes had been freshwater lakes before the barrages were constructed in 1940. The MDBA’s Advisory Committee on Social and Environmental Sciences recommended an independent review of the science underpinning how this part of the Murray–Darling Basin was being managed. Chair of the independent review, Dr Francis Chiew from the CSIRO, said the review panel drew on hundreds of studies during the review. He said, ‘The weight of evidence points to the main body of the Lower Lakes being largely fresh prior to European settlement, with moderate tidal influence and incursion of seawater during periods of low Murray River inflow. ‘This is informed by palaeoecological records, water balance estimates, hydrological and hydrodynamic modelling, and traditional knowledge of the Ngarrindjeri people and anecdotal evidence of early explorers and colonists.’ MDBA Chief Executive, Phillip Glyde, said that, while some Basin communities may have been disappointed that the review hadn’t found any new or spare water, the review provided assurances about the scientific basis of management practices. He said that the report made it clear that removing the barrages would contravene obligations under the Ramsar Convention and put threatened species at risk. It would also have socioeconomic impacts. The review also found that managing the CLLMM would become increasingly challenging due to climate change. The MDBA’s adaptive management approach will be crucial in dealing with this. Information about the independent review of Lower Lakes informing water management is published on the MDBA website.

Measure 2—The MDBA reports on the Murray–Darling Basin

The MDBA reports on the social, economic, cultural, hydrological, water quality and ecological conditions of the Murray–Darling Basin

Target: Basin Plan annual report published

Result: Met—Basin Plan annual report published March 2020

The MDBA publishes a series of reports that contain information on the social, economic, cultural, hydrological, water quality and ecological conditions of the Murray–Darling Basin. Under the Water Act, the MDBA is obliged to conduct reviews and evaluations, including the five-yearly evaluations of the Basin Plan.

Since 2018, the MDBA has been publishing report cards that provide short, regular updates on progress of the implementation of the Basin Plan (see pages Measure 3—Processes to show implementation of toolkit measures in place and Measure 1—MDBA has coordinated and overseen the asset activities).

During 2019–20, the MDBA published the Basin Plan annual report and First Nations people participation in environmental watering report. The Basin Plan evaluation report is on track for publishing next financial year.

Water quality reports published during the reporting period included:

Basin Plan annual report

The annual Basin Plan report sums up information from a variety of other reports provided to the MDBA at the end of the financial year to give a yearly update on the progress of the Basin Plan.

In March 2020, the MDBA published the Basin Plan Annual Report 2018–19. The MDBA has produced a Basin Plan annual report each year since 2012 and they are available on the MDBA website Publications | Murray-Darling Basin Authority (mdba.gov.au).

Basin Plan evaluation

In line with a recommendation from the Australian Government to give communities preliminary results, the MDBA published a 2017 pilot evaluation report on the MDBA website. There was also an addendum to this report published in June 2018.

During 2019–20, the MDBA consulted with the Basin states, the scientific community, research institutions, and First Nations peoples to develop methods to evaluate the outcomes of the Basin Plan. The MDBA used these methods to assess and improve its understanding of the effect of the Basin Plan on the environment, river flows and communities. This information will be used as evidence to inform the 2020 Basin Plan evaluation.

The 2020 Basin Plan evaluation report will be published towards the end of 2020.

First Nations peoples participation in environmental watering report

Under the Water (Indigenous Values and Uses) Direction 2018, the Authority is required to report annually on how environmental water holders planning environmental watering considered Indigenous values and Indigenous users and involved Indigenous people.

In January 2020, the MDBA published the first report, First Nations people participation in environmental watering 2018–19 on the MDBA website (link).

KPI 9 Collaborate in data collection and management

KPI: Collaborate and cooperate with Basin governments and other external stakeholders to collect data and knowledge and manage it appropriately

KPI result: Met

There are two measures to assess the extent to which KPI 9 has been achieved during 2019–20.

Both measures are qualitatively assessed and evidence shows the MDBA has met the targets for both measures. The MDBA has a strategic approach to the collection and management of knowledge and data. The main focus of the MDBA’s knowledge acquisition strategy has been the Basin Science Platform and the Murray–Darling Water and Environment Research Program.

The MDBA’s data management framework is currently being reviewed and continues to evolve in response to organisational needs and best practice.

Monitoring, evaluation and reporting under the Basin Plan is resulting in increased knowledge and improvement in how environmental water is managed. However, further effort is needed to ensure monitoring programs are appropriate for evaluating the effectiveness of the Basin Plan—at Basin, catchment and local scales—and that lessons from monitoring programs are documented in a systematic and accessible manner to support adaptive management at the different spatial scales. The level of resourcing for monitoring and evaluating the Basin Plan continues to be a challenge.

There are also challenges relating to the varying ways lessons from monitoring and research programs are reported and shared. Systematic documentation of lessons and ensuring they are accessible in a timely manner will benefit adaptive management.

Better alignment of the many monitoring and research programs across the Basin is necessary to ensure information gaps are filled and the necessary data is available to evaluate the effectiveness of the Basin Plan. Another challenge is to make annual reporting more relevant to adaptive management and useful for evaluation purposes.

Measure 1—Data and knowledge collected

Collaborate and cooperate with research institutions and other external entities to collect data and knowledge

Target: Qualitatively assessed

Result: Met—there is significant qualitative evidence to support this

The effective implementation of the Basin Plan relies on the collection and analysis of large amounts of information. The MDBA generates a significant amount of information itself but also works collaboratively with a range of other parties to collect data and knowledge. Activities included:

  • 11 independent reports published on the MDBA website in 2019–20, available in the publications part of the website
  • nine current collaboration agreements with federal and state agencies and research institutions for research and monitoring work
  • major activities resulting from the lower Darling fish kill event, including the collaborative Native Fish Recovery Strategy—published on the MDBA website—Water and Environment Research Program, and other programs.

The Joint Venture Monitoring and Evaluation program delivered projects on fish genetics, fish movement and woody vegetation. The program’s legacy report will provide valuable information for the transition from the joint venture to the Basin Science Platform, which will occur in the next reporting period.

Basin Science Platform

In October 2019, the Basin Science Platform’s policy drivers, gap analysis and proof of concept for implementation were delivered. The work was done by Alluvium Consulting, led by the NSW Department of Primary Industries and a jurisdictional working group. The consultation process included targeted engagement with First Nations representative bodies and the broader scientific community.

In the next stage of the project, a knowledge broker will be appointed under the Basin Officials Committee.

Murray–Darling Water and Environment Research Program

The program was formed in response to the independent assessment of the 2018–19 fish deaths in the lower Darling River. The then Australian Government Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, the Hon. David Littleproud MP, announced a $20 million fund to expand scientific knowledge of the Murray–Darling Basin to help inform water and environment management decisions.

The program will be delivered over four years and consists of three components:

  • practical information for water managers— synthesised communication products that summarise existing science for water managers
  • short and responsive investment—use of existing science and expertise for urgent, high-need projects that are likely to be completed in two- to six-month timeframes
  • strategic research—collaboration between the Commonwealth and research consortia to co-design and deliver applied research.

The program is administered by the MDBA in collaboration with the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment and the Commonwealth Environment Water Office.

During 2019–20, the MDBA, in collaboration with Commonwealth partners, developed the program’s design and a research prospectus. In the next 12 months, the program will co-design and further refine these priorities with research providers selected through an open tender process.


In 2019–20, the MDBA collaborated with the CSIRO on four projects. The climate change scenarios project was completed in early 2020. Three other projects are continuing on:

  • blue-green algae and backwater—Lake Hume blue-green algae monitoring and blooms forecasting 2019 to 2021 and assessment and mitigation options of blackwater risk in the River Murray system 2016 to 2020
  • evapo-transpiration in floodplain woody vegetation
  • Murray–Darling Basin ecosystem functions.

The collaboration is an effective way to deliver projects and also provides an avenue for strategic discussions. These happen at a formal level through the management committee made up of senior executives from the CSIRO and the MDBA, and at less formal level through staff colocation and project delivery.

Other collaborations on River Murray water quality projects included work with:

  • the University of Technology, Sydney on an algal bloom prediction model
  • SA Water on the regulation of Lake Victoria
  • Dr Darren Baldwin, Rivers and Wetlands, on advice, aeration and monitoring, including a report into the Menindee fish deaths.
Knowledge gathering

The salinity knowledge priorities identified in the BSM2030 Strategy are an example of knowledge gathering. Key knowledge needs identified in the BSM2030 Strategy include:

  • a project (Mallee Legacy of History) to improve understanding of risk associated with the projected impacts of historic land clearing and water use in the Mallee regions of New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria. The aim is to help reduce the uncertainty about the future magnitude and timing of salinity risks to the shared water resources
  • improved understanding of environmental water management and water practices to help better assess the salinity impacts of environmental watering
  • predictive forecasting for in-river salinity— improved surface water models to support predictions and forecasting of salt loads and river salinities to help reduce risks associated with salt interception schemes (SIS)
  • responsive SIS management—improved understanding of the salinity impacts associated with responsive SIS management.

More information about these knowledge priorities is in the Basin salinity management 2030 | 2018–19 comprehensive report published in March 2020 on the MDBA website (Basin Salinity Management 2030 (mdba.gov.au)

Aboriginal partnerships

The MDBA engages with Aboriginal peoples in the Basin in the planning and implementation of the Basin Plan. Formal arrangements include attendance at meetings of the Murray Lower Darling Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN) and the Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations (NBAN). These bodies are confederations of First Nations from the southern and northern parts of the Murray–Darling Basin respectively, and provide coordination and advice to the MDBA on First Nations issues. Core funding is provided for MLDRIN and NBAN, including funding for cultural flow officers and other fee-for-service activities. The MDBA also meets with representatives of individual Nations to discuss on-country issues.

There are also regular meetings of the Interdepartmental Committee on Aboriginal Engagement, which consists of Australian Government agencies as well as meetings with Aboriginal engagement teams of the Basin states. COVID-19 movement restrictions have affected all engagement activities and therefore face-to-face engagement has recently been replaced with online meetings. These have had varying levels of success. It is hoped that face-to-face engagement will recommence once movement restrictions have been eased, including governance training for board members of MLDRIN and NBAN.

Measure 2—MDBA data management framework applied

The MDBA has a data management framework which is applied for business needs

Target: Qualitatively assessed

Result: Substantially met

The MDBA uses a data management framework to control the life cycle of the data it collects. The MDBA has implemented new cloud platforms for more efficient storage, access and data retrieval.

The framework is based on the principles of the Data Management Body of Knowledge and adapted to suit MDBA business needs. It provides an enterprise reference for key data management functions as well as a process for planning and implementation.

Over the 2019–20 reporting period, the Data Services Section made considerable progress in both the development and implementation of an enterprise data management framework. The framework was implemented for several business areas, including the Basin Plan evaluation 2020 activity and Geographical Information Systems and remote sensing team.

The framework now includes data literacy and analytical capabilities to support MDBA staff to further develop these capabilities. Data literacy and analytical capabilities are critical in supporting evidence-based decision-making and the implementation of government policy, as well as in delivering services that meet the needs of MDBA stakeholders.

The framework is currently being circulated for review before being considered for approval. It will continue to evolve to meet Australian Government data and digital drivers, the needs of MDBA staff and the MDBA’s strategic priorities. Subsequent maturity assessment and review will follow early in 2020–21.

Information Management and Technology Committee

The Information Management and Technology Committee (IMTC) is a senior management committee that provides the MDBA Executive with recommendations on information management and technology matters. This includes overseeing the development and implementation of high-level organisational IT and information investments and policies that help ensure the MDBA can effectively carry out its work.

The IMTC is chaired by the Chief Operating Officer. Each MDBA division has a representative on the committee to ensure IMTC decisions meet business needs. The committee also has an independent advisor.

The IMTC reviewed and approved a new ICT strategy to align ICT investment and capability to the MDBA in its further regionalisation. This investment and implementation of new cloud, IT services and audiovisual systems paid dividends in supporting the MDBA to work more remotely during the COVID-19 business continuity event.

It has played a major role in developing systems to support sustainable diversion limit compliance and reporting, and managing data.