I am pleased to present the Murray–Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) annual report for 2019–20. The year has presented great challenges for all those who live and work in the Murray–Darling Basin. Drought, heatwaves, hailstorms, bushfires and the impact of COVID-19 have put immense pressure on communities, industries and the environment in the Basin. Challenge can bring out the best in us. Basin communities, along with the rest of Australia, have pulled together to help each other through these crises. I have also been incredibly proud of how MDBA staff responded to the rapid changes in circumstances.
After the searing summer, much-welcomed autumn rain saw the first natural flow into Menindee Lakes since 2016, and in April, the Darling and the River Murray reconnected for the first time since 2018. In an example of the Basin Plan in action, both Queensland and New South Wales protected these first flushes to ensure water got as far through the system as possible to benefit both communities and the environment. This illustrates the value of Basin governments continuing to work together to implement this world-leading reform.
This year we marked a significant Basin Plan milestone. We received all outstanding water resource plans—an achievement that will go a long way towards securing a sustainable future for the Basin. Water resource plans are integral to the Basin Plan at a catchment level. They set out the rules for how water is used, how much water will be available to the environment and how water quality standards can be met. More work remains, however, especially on the complex and significant supply and constraint projects that make up the sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism.
Running the river is always a complex process, but in times of scarcity, it quite rightly comes under greater scrutiny. The MDBA’s role is to operate the River Murray on behalf of the New South Wales, Victorian and South Australian governments. The joint management of the River Murray dates back over 100 years and is set out in the Murray–Darling Basin Agreement. Our performance is regularly reviewed and audited, but recent reports from the Interim Inspector-General and others have shown more can be done to help the community understand how the system works. We have been working hard to increase the transparency and accessibility of water management information, but we know there is always more that can be done. We will work with Basin governments, as the Interim Inspector-General has recommended, so people can get the information they need and want.
Enacting change and managing a resource as important as water in an environment of the scale and complexity of the Murray–Darling Basin is difficult at the best of times. During a drought it is even more fraught. The experiences of 2019–20 reveal that commitment to the fair and equitable sharing of available water between communities, irrigators and the river environment is more important now than ever. The MDBA remains committed to working alongside those who are doing the heavy lifting—adjusting their lives and livelihoods—to secure a healthy working Basin for those generations to come.
The drought has shone a spotlight on water management. The Interim Inspector-General’s review of water sharing arrangements, released in April 2020, highlighted the need for more transparency in how water is managed and how decisions are made across all layers of government. Similar concerns were also raised by the Panel for Independent Assessment of Social and Economic Conditions in the Murray–Darling Basin, led by Robbie Sefton. This is consistent with what we are hearing from communities and it has largely been sparked by the immense changes occurring in the Basin. There has been a shift in water use—it is moving away from traditional crops like rice and dairy to higher-value products like cotton and nuts. At the same time, entitlements have been purchased for environmental water holders under the Basin Plan. On top of this, there has been a downward trend in water availability in the River Murray system, with inflows on average reducing by half in the past 20 years. This has been compounded by the broader trends—technological change, an ageing population and shifts in consumer demand. Some communities are benefiting from these shifts, but others are suffering.
As an agency, we have made massive inroads to increase the information available on water management but, as with most things, there is always room for improvement. We support any initiatives that increase transparency and help build awareness and understanding of how water is managed—provided it is evidence-based and user-focused. To achieve this, a coordinated and sustained effort is required by all Basin water management agencies. We stand committed to demonstrating leadership in communicating and engaging on river management to support a joint approach. Following the Murray–Darling Basin Water Compliance Review in 2017 and through the Murray–Darling Basin Compliance Compact in 2018, the MDBA has been driving improvements in reporting and increased transparency about water measurement and accounting data and water compliance frameworks and enforcement activities across the Basin to increase public confidence about the management of the Basin.
We continued to expand our regional footprint, with three new offices established during the year. Our target for having more than one-third of our staff outside of our Canberra base is well on the way to being met. Our regional presence allows us to extend our engagement with communities and stakeholders on matters of local importance and to tailor information for local needs. It also means we can more readily receive, explore and consider community views in the work we do. The regional footprint complements and supplements our already extensive network of community representation via our Basin Community Committee, our regional engagement officers and the regular visits by MDBA staff to all the far reaches of the Basin.
Basin Plan implementation
In our six-monthly Basin Plan Report Card released at the end of the financial year, we revealed there’s been good progress to implement the Basin Plan, with more action needed to deliver important on-ground projects.
Overall, substantial progress was made with water resource plans, with most states now having accredited plans in place. Plans from Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory are accredited and in operation. New South Wales has now submitted all its groundwater and surface water resource plans, and these are now being assessed.
Sustainable diversion limit (SDL) accounting progressed according to schedule, with the SDL Accounting Framework Improvement Strategy published in May, and work commencing on the supporting data management project. Compliance with SDLs came into effect on 1 July 2019 and the compliance framework will be applied, with the first SDL compliance report on the water year 2019–20 scheduled for March 2021.
Work continued on implementing the northern Basin toolkit measures. Good progress has been made on the policy and management measures and more modest progress has been made on the environmental works and infrastructure measures.
An area of concern this year remains progress on the SDL adjustment mechanism. While the majority of projects are progressing, a number of projects are behind schedule. Some of those most at risk are major projects that make a considerable contribution to the overall adjustment.
With the accreditation of water resource plans, the MDBA’s regulatory role is increasingly activated. The MDBA’s annual compliance priorities and audit program reflect this increasing role, with a growing audit program designed to provide assurance that the Basin Plan is being properly implemented.
To support this, in 2019–20 we focused on enhancing our regulatory capability. We continue to make best use of the available technology. For example, by using satellite imagery, we can now monitor first flush events as well as monitoring the use of water as another line of evidence to gauge compliance with the water resource plans and SDLs. We are working with our state government regulatory partners to improve our collective measuring, accounting and reporting of water use and compliance.
Water management is complex, requiring knowledge covering a wide range of fields. These include understanding climate and weather and how these relate to river flow, agricultural and environmental productivity. Knowledge and understanding of how the ecology works and responds to different conditions is also key for informed water management, as is having an appreciation of water and agricultural markets and the key drivers in regional Basin communities.
To support the effective implementation of the Basin Plan, we collect, analyse and synthesise large amounts of information obtained through field surveys, technical projects, engagement activities and research programs. We work on ways to continuously improve our and others’ science and knowledge base, collaborating across governments and with industry. During the year, 11 independent reviews were published on our website, the insights of which have been adsorbed into our knowledge base. We value our links with and continue to work with our research partners because there is still much to learn.
Review and reflection
Quite rightly, water management is the focus of a range of reviews. The reviews of the Murray–Darling Basin Agreement, of the operation of water markets and of the lived experiences of towns, communities and people in the Basin will all yield key insights into how we can improve water management for the benefit of all. It is good that we have fresh eyes looking at these issues. The Basin Plan has reviews built into it—designed to give space to reflect, adjust and change as new information and science comes forward and we learn more about this magnificent natural asset that Basin communities rely on. Later this year, we look forward to releasing the 2020 Basin Plan Evaluation.
The Basin Plan is unlike any reform of its kind in the world. It is in Australia’s interest to rebalance the scales and create a sustainable long-term footing for industries and communities.
The Independent River Operations Review Group report—in assessing MDBA river operations for the year—noted that it is becoming increasingly clear that history is no longer a guide to the future regarding water resource availability and temporal variability and that we need to continue to challenge our assumptions and operational norms to come up with a defensible approach to managing the system in response to a changing climate. If there are ways that we can be smarter with our water, then all water users—including governments—should be taking action, especially as the climate gets drier and water becomes scarcer.
We are doing our best to deliver on this promise. Seven years in, we are generally on track, but there remains hard work ahead for all involved.
Finally, on behalf of all past and current staff of the MDBA, I would like to acknowledge the late Oscar Mamalai for his 21 years of dedication to the MDBA and the former Murray–Darling Basin Commission. Oscar was a valued member of staff and made an enduring contribution to many facets of water management in the Basin. His most recent contribution was working collaboratively with the ACT Government on the development of ACT water resource plans.