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Goal 1 Drive the successful implementation of the Basin Plan

Role of the MDBA

Lead the implementation of the Basin Plan in collaboration with Basin state and territory governments and other Australian Government agencies

Desired outcomes

  • Accreditation of water resource plans (WRPs) that are consistent with the Basin Plan
  • Water use across the Basin is compliant with sustainable diversion limits (SDLs)
  • Environmental benefits are maximised through the use of the northern Basin toolkit
  • Sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism (SDLAM) projects are substantially progressed
  • Environmental water is efficiently delivered with minimum impact on the people, land and infrastructure

2019–20 key activities

  • Assess WRPs for accreditation
  • Commence application of SDL Reporting and Compliance Framework and complete transition reporting
  • Monitor the implementation of toolkit measures in the northern Basin
  • Coordinate the design and implementation of the SDLAM projects, including constraints management measures
  • Complete the review of the Basin Watering Strategy
  • Complete the review of the Environmental Watering Plan—Chapter 8 of the Basin Plan
  • Progress the MDBA responsibilities in the Basin Commitment Package

Source: MDBA Corporate Plan 2019-20 mdba-corporate-plan-2019-20.pdf

KPI 1 Collaborate with Basin governments for WRP accreditation and SDL accounting

KPI: Collaborate with Basin governments to achieve accreditation of water resource plans and transition to implement sustainable diversion limit accounting while managing instances of noncompliance

KPI result: Partially met

There are three measures to assess the extent to which KPI 1 was achieved during 2019–20. All measures are progressing and the overall assessment of ‘partially met’ reflects the influence of external factors.

Although progress for the first measure was good, the quantitative result was affected by delays with the New South Wales WRPs, which make up more than half the total number of WRPs.

Similarly, the result for the second measure, the publication of the SDL transition report, was delayed by the need to include new analysis. Application of the SDL Reporting and Compliance Framework, the third measure, will only be evident over time but as of 30 June 2020 it was on track.

The Basin Plan lists a range of measures that form an adaptive framework for whole-of-system water management of the Basin. The aim is to increase the health of the Basin through balancing the use and benefit to all water users. The main steps to achieving this are:

  • having WRPs accredited
  • transitioning to SDL accounting
  • managing non-compliance.

Success relies on effective collaboration between the MDBA and the Basin governments— the Australian Government and the governments of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory.

Success also relies on making sure the needs and values of Aboriginal peoples have been taken into account. Through the assessment of WRPs, the Authority is consulting with the relevant Aboriginal organisations on the adequacy of Basin Plan requirements relating to Aboriginal values and uses. In most cases, consultation is through the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations and/or the Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations.

Measure 1—Percentage of WRPs assessed by MDBA for accreditation

Percentage of WRPs that have been assessed by the MDBA for accreditation

Target: 100%

Result: Partially met—39%

WRPs are an important part of implementing the Basin Plan. WRPs outline:

  • how water is used at a local or catchment level, taking into account the limits on how much water can be taken from the system
  • the amount of water that will be made available for the environment
  • how water quality standards can be met
  • how each region aims to achieve community, environmental, economic and cultural outcomes to meet Basin Plan objectives.

The MDBA assesses each WRP formally submitted to the MDBA. Figure 2.1 shows parties involved in the development, assessment and accreditation of WRPs.

The Basin Plan requires 33 WRPs to be developed— 19 for surface water, 19 for groundwater and 5 that cover both.

At 30 June 2020:

  • All WRPs from Queensland, South Australia, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory have been assessed and accredited.
  • New South Wales submitted all 20 WRPs for assessment (11 groundwater WRPs submitted for assessment in April 2020 and nine surface water WRPs submitted for assessment in June 2020).

Overall, during 2019–20, good progress was made with WRPs. A combination of factors has caused delays with the New South Wales plans, including the drought, bushfires and further consultations, as well as the higher number of WRPs that New South Wales is responsible for developing (20 of the 33 WRPs).

Under a bilateral agreement between the Basin state governments and the Commonwealth, key elements of WRPs were given effect on 1 July 2019 where WRPs had not yet been accredited by that date.

A new bilateral agreement has been agreed to with New South Wales this year. This will ensure these commitments remain in place for the next water year where accredited WRPs are not in place.

The MDBA publishes WRP quarterly reports on the MDBA website (Water resource plan quarterly reports | Murray-Darling Basin Authority (mdba.gov.au).

Figure 2.1 Responsibilities for water resource plans Diagram depicting Responsibilities for water resource plans. Basin state starts development. MDBA feedback to assist states throughout development. Basin states consults with local communities, water users, peak bodies and Aboriginal Nations. Basin state finalises WRP. Basin state WRP submission to MDBA. Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations / Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations assess Traditional Ower consultation and provide advice. MDBA assesses WRP and provides advice to minister. The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment advises the minister on the MDBA's recommendation. Minister decides whether to accredit WRP. Once accredited the WRP is operational.

Measure 2—Processes for SDL reporting and managing compliance in place

MDBA and states have processes in place to undertake SDL reporting and manage compliance

Target: SDL transition report published

Result: Partially met—2018–19 SDL transition report delayed due to analysis of new data

Since 2012–13, the MDBA and the Basin states have been invested in developing ways to report on and manage compliance with the new SDL accounting system. These trials have been published in a series of transition period water take reports.

The 2017–18 report was published in July 2019 and the 2018–19 report is due to be published in early 2020–21. These reports can be found on the MDBA website (Transitional SDL water take reports | Murray-Darling Basin Authority (mdba.gov.au).

A key part of transitioning from the Cap on Diversions to SDL accounting and compliance is having processes developed to carry out the annual reporting cycle.

The Transition Period Water Take Report 2018–19 will set out the results of the Cap compliance assessment as well as a trial SDL compliance assessment for 2018–19 using the SDL accounting framework. Its publication in the latter part of 2020 will be after the reporting target due to new analysis added on trends in water use.

The MDBA is committed to continuous improvement in water measurement and accounting:

  • The MDBA has developed the SDL Accounting Framework Improvement Strategy 2020–2025, published in May 2020 on the MDBA website. The strategy outlines how the MDBA will continue to improve the SDL accounting framework in conjunction with the Basin states over the next six years. It also includes work to align water accounting concepts between the Bureau of Meteorology and the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
  • The MDBA has commenced the SDL Accounting Data Management Project. This will improve the accounting and compliance processes, including data acquisition, management, analysis and reporting in a streamlined system. It is intended that the new solution be in place for the collection and analysis of the 2020–21 water take data.

Measure 3—SDL Reporting and Compliance Framework applied

SDL Reporting and Compliance Framework is applied

Target: Qualitatively assessed

Result: Substantially met—application of the SDL Reporting and Compliance Framework is on track

The SDL Reporting and Compliance Framework (the framework) is a policy document that outlines how the MDBA assesses and reports on compliance with the SDLs. It also includes the approach to assess a Basin state’s claims that it has a reasonable excuse for exceeding its SDL, and the actions a Basin state will do to ‘make good’ or bring diversions back within the limits.

Basin states must comply with SDLs from 1 July 2019. Compliance decisions will be reported in the annual water take reports.

In future years, publication of the annual water take reports will show that the framework is being applied.

To account for SDLs, the Water Act 2007 (the Water Act) s. 71 and s. 32 require Basin states and the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office (CEWO) to report water take and availability annually. Under the Basin Plan, the MDBA is required to establish, maintain and publish an annual Register of Take commencing with the 2019–20 water year, which outlines the annual permitted and actual take for each SDL resource unit.

The data collection and population of the Register of Take is the first step to assessing compliance and is published as part of the annual water take report. Historical registers are published in the transitional water take reports on the MDBA website.

The Basin Plan provides that an adjustment can be made to the Register of Take if water recovery targets have not been met because of reasons beyond a Basin states’ control. The MDBA has determined the amount of water recovery that was incomplete at 1 July 2019.

The Authority is also undergoing the process to make a formal assessment on how much of this incomplete water recovery is beyond the Basin states’ control. This will form part of the compliance assessment for the 2019–20 accounts in accordance with the framework.

The SDL reporting and compliance documents are published on the MDBA website (Compliance and enforcement documents | Murray-Darling Basin Authority (mdba.gov.au).

KPI 2 Collaborate with Basin governments to deliver toolkit measures

KPI: Collaborate with Basin governments to achieve delivery of toolkit measures

KPI result: Substantially met

The first measure in KPI 2—first ministers’ endorsement of Schedule 3 of the Intergovernmental Agreement on Implementing Water Reform in the Murray–Darling Basin (IGA)—has been completely met. Progress against the milestones in Schedule 3 (the second measure) and processes to demonstrate the successful implementation of these measures (the third measure) have been significantly met. Collaboration is the key element in progressing the toolkit measures and all parties involved have demonstrated considerable good will and effort. This is despite climatic challenges including drought, bushfires and floods, and the COVID-19 pandemic in the first half of 2020.

The toolkit measures reflect the MDBA’s view that the SDLs are a necessary, but alone insufficient, step to achieve a sustainable northern river system. The variable climate, combined with the unique geomorphology and water use practices across the northern Basin, necessitates a more tailored approach to water management. Accordingly, the MDBA recommended a reduction in water recovery be complemented by a series of toolkit measures to improve water management practices across the northern Basin.

Implementation of the toolkit measures depends on collaboration between the Australian, Queensland and NSW governments, and stakeholders in the northern Basin.

During 2019–20, there was solid progress on delivering the toolkit measures, showing commitment by Basin governments. Implementation of toolkit measures are at various stages. Overall, there has been good progress on the policy and management measures (measures 1–4) and more modest progress on the environmental works infrastructure measures (measures 5–6) (see Table 2.1).

Active management arrangements are continuing to be developed (measures 3 and 4) with some good lessons learned from the recent northern flow events. However, challenges remain around the timing to include these within the NSW water sharing arrangements and WRPs.

Progress on environmental works and measures infrastructure projects—such as fishways and the Gwydir constraints project—has been slower than expected, partly due to COVID-19 restrictions and impacts.

Arrangements between the Commonwealth, New South Wales and Queensland are now in place to feasibly fund activities for proposed environmental works and measures projects.

Delays in developing feasibility proposals have meant that the timeframe for submitting business cases in the second half of 2020 will not be met. This timeframe was agreed to by Basin first ministers under Schedule 3 of the IGA (Appendix A). The consequence of delays is that delivering the prioritised projects by 30 June 2024 will be challenging.

Also, the full effects of COVID-19 restrictions are not yet apparent, and it is possible that community engagement and construction of these measures will be yet further delayed. Further delays will increase implementation risk.

Continuing challenges include the need to improve community engagement—particularly on infrastructure projects—and access to information about the projects and progress, including the communication of roles and responsibilities.

Measure 1—IGA Schedule 3 endorsed

Schedule 3 to IGA endorsed by first ministers

Target: 100%

Result: Met—100%

Schedule 3 of the IGA sets out how the Australian, NSW and Queensland governments intend to implement the toolkit measures.

The schedule includes:

  • funding arrangements
  • roles and responsibilities
  • an implementation plan for each of the six toolkit measures in Appendix A.

The IGA was signed on 9 August 2019 by the Prime Minister, the premiers of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia and the chief minister of the Australian Capital Territory. This endorsement shows a commitment by Basin governments to work together to deliver the toolkit measures (link).

Measure 2—Milestones for six toolkit measures progressed

Milestones and actions in schedule 3 to the IGA are being progressed for each of the six toolkit measures

Target: As per Schedule 3 of the IGA

Result: Substantially met

The six toolkit measures are:

  1. targeted recovery of water—aims to improve environmental watering into Narran Lakes, Lower Balonne and Culgoa floodplains and the Barwon– Darling River while managing any adverse socioeconomic impact
  2. protection of environmental flows—aims to strengthen environmental flows across the northern Basin, particularly in the unregulated river systems of the Condamine–Balonne and Barwon–Darling
  3. event-based environmental water mechanisms— aims to support the development of contractual and other mechanisms to complement environmental water management; aims to benefit the Narran Lakes, some areas of the Lower Balonne, the Border Rivers and Namoi regions, and Barwon–Darling
  4. improved coordination and management of environmental water—aims to maximise environmental outcomes of water for the environment moving from upper catchments to downstream rivers such as the Barwon–Darling and Lower Balonne
  5. Gwydir constraints—aims to remove constraints in the Gwydir catchment that are preventing flows from reaching the Gwydir wetland
  6. environmental works and measures—aims to implement works that promote fish movement and habitat and broader ecological outcomes in the northern Basin.

Full details of the toolkit measures are available in the IGA on the Council of Australian Governments website (link).

Most of the timeframes for completing the milestones are in future financial years (i.e. after June 2020). Timeframes and progress against these toolkit measures are provided in Table 2.1.

Table 2.1 Summary of toolkit measures, milestones and progress

Toolkit measure

Milestones and timeframe


1. Targeted recovery of water

  • Monthly reports on progress towards water recovery targets
  • Report giving examples of how the water recovered is helping to achieve environmental outcomes

  • The Australian Government, in consultation with NSW, Qld and the MDBA, is continuing to recover water through targeted purchase and investments in water-saving infrastructure.
  • Regular reports are published on the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment website.
  • As at 31 March 2020, there was 29.7 GL of water recovery remaining in the northern Basin.

2. Protection of environmental flows

  • Mechanisms to protect environmental flows included in WRPs submitted for accreditation by 31 December 2019 and in place and operating by end 2020
  • Accounting method supported by protocols and procedures for Qld-to-NSW cross-border held environmental water in place and operating by end 2020

  • Mechanisms to better manage and protect environmental water and low flows are now being included in all WRPs.
  • In Qld, all WRPs are accredited and fully operational.
  • Qld is working with NSW to develop an accounting method for cross-border environmental water—due to be in place by end 2020.
  • NSW has interim arrangements to protect water for the environment while it completes WRPs. All 20 NSW WRPs were submitted for assessment by 30 June 2020. This followed public consultation for proposed amendments to water sharing plans that embed arrangements for protecting environmental water.

3. Event-based environmental water mechanisms

  • A workplan for developing a suitable framework for event-based mechanisms finalised by 31 December 2019

  • In January 2020, after extensive consultation, the report, Event-based mechanisms in the Lower Balonne: implementation overview was finished and published on the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment website.
  • Qld has committed to review accounting and management arrangements within the seasonal assignment framework to facilitate the take-up of event-based mechanisms to allow for flow event transfers between entitlement holders and the CEWO.
  • In early 2020, a pilot grant scheme was implemented that involved paying a water allocation holder that was legally entitled to pump water from the Narran River not to pump. This resulted in approximately 8 GL of additional water being delivered to the Narran Lakes, an internationally important wetland.

4. Improved coordination and management of environmental water

  • Draft terms of reference agreed to by the parties by end 2019
  • All projects that are assessed and approved for Commonwealth funding must have started by June 2024

  • The CEWO and NSW coordinated joint environmental releases to achieve whole-of-north connected flows in 2018 (Northern Connectivity Event) and 2019 (Northern Fish Flow). More information is provided in Case study 1.
  • There was protection of first flush flows from the northern Basin flow event through to Menindee Lakes (February to April 2020).
  • A Northern Basin Environmental Watering Group has been formed to coordinate planning and delivery of water for the environment across the northern Basin. It has met several times.

5. Gwydir constraints

  • Revised Gwydir constraints project business case finalised by the second half of 2020

  • NSW has been provided with funding to develop a feasibility proposal to remove constraints in the Gwydir catchment, due 31 July 2020.

6. Environmental works and measures

  • All projects for this measure that are assessed and approved for Commonwealth funding must have:
    • submitted business cases to the Australian Government department in the second half 2020
    • started by June 2024

  • An ecological prioritisation framework has been developed and endorsed by the Basin Officials Committee to prioritise toolkit projects to be implemented according to their ability to deliver maximum environmental outcomes in the northern Basin.
  • NSW and Qld have been provided with funding to prepare feasibility proposals by 31 July 2020 for Commonwealth assessment using the prioritisation framework.
  • Previous delays in developing feasibility proposals have meant that the timeframe for submitting business cases in the second half of 2020 will not be met. A new timeframe for business case submission is yet to be confirmed.
  • Implementation of priority projects may start in the second half of 2021 subject to the prioritisation process and a decision by the Australian Government minister to proceed.

Case study 1 is an example of the coordination activities underway across the northern Basin to help improve environmental water delivery.

 Northern Basin Environmental Watering Group improves coordination of environmental water The 2018 Northern Connectivity Event and the 2019 Northern Fish Flow were the first multicatchment coordinated events in the northern Basin. The combined flows had tangible environmental outcomes and showed the value of multi-catchment and multi-jurisdictional coordination of environmental water in the northern Basin. Substantial planning and collaboration were required between the CEWO and government agencies in New South Wales and Queensland for these events. As this level of coordination at the operational scale was pioneering, these events were reasonably resource intensive. Learning from these activities, Basin governments established the Northern Basin Environmental Watering Group (NBEWG) as an enduring forum to coordinate environmental water planning and delivery across the northern Basin. The NBEWG comprises officials from the Australian Government (the MDBA; CEWO; Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment), and the New South Wales and Queensland governments. The NBEWG also has a key role in monitoring progress and assisting with overcoming barriers to the implementation of the toolkit measures. Since their first meeting in November 2019, the NBEWG has met on several occasions, including during the northern Basin first flush flow event in early 2020. The information shared and collected by this forum has improved the collective understanding of the northern Basin as well as providing a pool of information to assist the MDBA and partaking agencies when responding to community requests for information. Formation of the NBEWG also implements one of the recommendations of the Productivity Commission’s five-year assessment of the Basin Plan.

Measure 3—Processes to show implementation of toolkit measures in place

The MDBA, New South Wales, Queensland, and the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment have processes in place to demonstrate the successful implementation of toolkit measures

Target: Quarterly progress report published by the MDBA

Figure 2.2 Status of toolkit measures in June 2020 report card  projects are at various stages, with some projects on track providing confidence to communities, while some projects are delayed. A clear approach to implementation is required and should be made publicly availalbe.

The MDBA, and the Australian, NSW and Queensland governments all have roles to play to implement the toolkit measures. Progress of the toolkit and the activities of each respective agency is monitored by the Northern Basin Project Group (NBPG). The NBPG meet each quarter and report on progress twice a year to the Basin Officials Committee and the Ministerial Council.

Delivery of the Northern Basin Review recommendations and toolkit works and measures was also reported on by the Northern Basin Commissioner. The report is available on the Inspector-General’s website. The commissioner’s first-year report, which was also the final report, was tabled in Parliament in December 2019. The reports are available on the Interim Inspector-General of Murray–Darling Basin Water Resources website. This new role was announced in August 2019 to replace the Northern Basin Commissioner role.

The MDBA publishes six-monthly report cards on the MDBA website, providing regular and comprehensive assessment of progress. The reports respond to feedback from Basin communities for short, timely and accurate updates.

The report cards assess progress on the six key elements of the Basin Plan implementation:

  • water resource plans
  • water recovery
  • compliance
  • northern Basin initiatives
  • SDL adjustment mechanism
  • environmental water delivery.

The first report was published in 2018.

The Murray–Darling Basin Ministerial Council has agreed to publish on the MDBA website a Commonwealth, NSW and Queensland jointly agreed work plan for toolkit implementation. This work plan will be available in the second half of 2020 and regularly updated (minimum six-monthly) to reflect progress.

Combining the role and reporting by the NBPG with the six–monthly report cards and up-to-date work plans demonstrates how the MDBA has processes in place to report on the implementation of all toolkit measures.

While much of the reporting is six-monthly, and the multiple intergovernmental committees that oversee the process discuss projects quarterly, this is deemed appropriate. It corresponds with the expected rate of progress and is consistent with timeframes of other established progress reporting processes—for example, the MDBA report cards.

Complementing these more formal published progress reports, both the NBPG and NBEWG meet regularly to monitor and discuss toolkit measure implementation progress.