Go to top of page

About the Murray–Darling Basin

The Murray–Darling Basin is a complex, diverse and dynamic river system. It is also an economic and ecological powerhouse. It is constantly changing in response to the influences of people, climate and the way water is used for production, communities and the environment.

One of the flattest water catchment areas on earth, the Basin contains both highly developed and natural rivers, floodplains and extensive groundwater resources—many of which are also heavily developed. These water systems provide a home and habitat to millions of fish, birds and other animals—many of which are protected under Australian legislation and international agreements.

Overall, the Basin contains 77,000 km of rivers, with flows totalling some 35,000 gigalitres (GL) on average. Each year, the Basin produces more than one-third of the nation’s food and $22 billion in agriculture on average.

Significant sites and assets

The Basin water resources include over 30,000 wetlands, including 16 that are recognised internationally under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Convention). More than 120 species of waterbirds and 46 species of native fish live in the Basin’s water systems. The Basin also contains Australia’s largest river red gum forest, which covers 66,000 hectares.

Tourism is a critical industry within the Murray–Darling Basin, equating to $15.1 billion worth of expenditure in 2019 and contributing an average of $13 billion to the nation’s economy each year. Covering over one million square kilometres, the Basin is rich in cultural and natural assets, with an abundance of towns, rivers, environments and geographical features spread across five states and territories. Tourism activities commonly centre around the food and wine industry, shopping,
historical sites, cultural events and nature-based activities, attracting 55 million visitors in 2019 for overnight and day trips for business or pleasure.

Agriculture is one of the key industries in the Basin. In 2016, it provided around 8% of total employment by various sectors in the Basin. Around 34% of the total agricultural employment is provided by irrigated industries and the rest by other agriculture industries, including dryland agriculture.

The irrigated agriculture land area of 1.1 million hectares is considerably smaller than the dryland agriculture area in the Basin. Irrigated agriculture contributes around 44% of the total value added by the agriculture sector.

The Murray–Darling Basin supports a diverse range of activities and contains a diverse range of assets. It spans three states and a territory, providing significant contribution to the people that live in the Basin across Australia. It is also important internationally.

The Basin Plan

The Murray–Darling Basin Plan is unlike any reform of its kind in the world. As well as being integrated across state boundaries, at its heart, its aim is to ensure a healthy and productive working Basin by sharing water among all users—including the environment—in a sustainable way.

The Plan is a legal commitment made under Commonwealth law. The task of implementation is complex and extends from 2012 until 2026. Implementation requires cooperation and commitment from six governments—four states, one territory and the Australian Government.

Each element of Plan implementation works in concert with other elements, and all the elements will need to be completed to deliver the expected outcomes. Implementing the Basin Plan and associated water reforms is a long-term investment to which the Australian Government and Basin states have committed.

Operating context for 2019–20

During 2019–20, a number of significant milestones continued to be progressed and delivered against the backdrop of severe and worsening drought, the hottest summer on record, and an unprecedented season of bushfires that devastated communities across all the Basin states.

Following these events, the COVID-19 pandemic and requirements for social distancing caused further stress for communities and added further challenges for the MDBA and all the Basin states. A number of programs and initiatives were affected by travel restrictions and the need to divert resources to other emerging and evolving priorities.

Total water storage was critically low and communities and farmers were under stress. The extent of areas ravaged by the bushfires and subsequent rain caused the potential for water quality issues in numerous storage dams and weirs. The year was characterised by tight water restrictions until welcome rain came in autumn.

However, the drought is far from over. The climate across the Murray–Darling Basin is highly variable and it can take many months of above-average rainfall before a drought breaks.

At the opening of 2019–20, the total storage level of all water holdings was at an average of 48% capacity. By the end of 2019–20, the total storage was at 38%, with some locations in the northern Basin at as low as 5%. In the northern Basin, the drought is having a devastating effect on water quality and, with water at historical lows, there will be little irrigated agriculture. The overall storage level for the northern Basin, despite some autumn rain, was 17% of capacity at the conclusion of the year. The southern Basin, while somewhat buffered by large public dam storages, also experienced ongoing and tighter restrictions in water allocations. The overall storage level in the southern Basin at the end of the year was 47% of capacity.

This makes the Basin Plan even more important, with numerous competing needs to be managed fairly and transparently. Further information about how water is managed and allocated during times of drought can be found on the MDBA website.

Figure 1.2 Storage level as a percentage of capacity across the Basin as at 24 June 2020 Graphic indicating water storage levels.Glenlyon 14%. Keepit 16%. Chaffey 17%. Wyangala 16%. Burrinjuck 43%. Blowering 55%. Dartmouth 52%. Hume 35%. Eildon 47%. Lake Victoria 83%. Menindee Lakes 28%. Burrendong 18%. Split Rock 5%. Copdeton 14%. Pindari 13%. Totals Northerrn Basin 17%, Southern Basin 47%.