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Community answers calls for input on all things basin

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority is preparing for its 2026 review of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and as part of this process it is drawing upon scientific input as well as input from the community and First Nations people and groups.

While the Australian Government works to deliver the Basin Plan, the Authority is seeking to inform the next iteration of the plan. The Authority released the Roadmap to the 2026 Basin Plan review last month and has committed to working with communities throughout the three-year journey.

During a public webinar held by the Department of Climate Change, Energy, Environment and Water last month – Ideas to deliver the Murray-Darling Basin Plan – Murray-Darling Basin Authority Executive Director Tim Goodes presented an overview of the roadmap towards the 2026 Basin Plan review.

Goodes said the Authority is also committed to ensuring the ongoing management of water in the Basin is adaptive and sustainable.

“The Water Act requires that a review of the Basin Plan be conducted in 2026 and also every 10 years after that. This approach really enshrines in the legislation the principle of adaptive management,” he said.

“It suggests in legislation that our knowledge will always improve over time, and our management actions should improve and be updated in accordance with that so we are always managing the basin from the best available scientific knowledge.”

Goodes said there will be a significant amount of science, policy and engagement work required over the next three years in order to produce a discussion paper that outlines the Authority’s thinking, which will all occur alongside the delivery of the current plan.

“The Authority is really clear that while the preparation for the review gets underway now, and during the review, that implementation of the plan must continue,” he said.

“We will continue implementation while we consider the most appropriate objectives and outcomes for the coming decade.”

Themes for the future

The Authority has identified four main themes for the Basin Plan review, including climate change, sustainable water limits, First Nations’ water management and regulatory frameworks.

Goodes said it’s crucial that the upcoming review addresses changes in climate by incorporating up-to-date data and insight.

“Firstly, our changing climate presents challenges for all the values of the basin, whether it's irrigated agriculture or the management of environmental assets,” he said.

“Our collective understanding of the impacts of climate change on the management and resilience of river environments and water users has significantly evolved since the Basin Plan was developed.

“We need to incorporate up-to-date climate data and science into the Basin Plan’s strategies and activities. We intend to provide a clear picture of past and current conditions in the basin and describe how the basin may change in future climate scenarios in terms of environmental, economic and cultural and social outcomes.

“We will explore how best to plan for an uncertain future and what actions we can take to help the basin adapt to a changing climate.”

Goodes said the second major theme of the upcoming review will be to explore sustainable water limits, with the review set to consider the environmentally sustainable level of take, as well as the surface water and groundwater sustainable diversion limits.

“A central pillar of the Basin Plan is the setting of limits for water take to ensure that a number of outcomes are achieved,” he said.

“Quite rightly, there is intense public scrutiny around methods, modelling and decision making processes for determining the setting of the Basin Plan, including the permitted levels of take.

“If the Authority feels it necessary to propose any change, we will carefully examine options and test their impact. We will look at what outcomes are possible under limits and what else is needed to support the delivery of the Basin Plan outcomes.”

Thirdly, the upcoming review will consider current and future opportunities for furthering the involvement of First Nations peoples in water management in the basin, Goodes said.

“During the life of the Basin Plan to date, we have seen an important shift in the recognition of first nations peoples values and use of water in the basin. Community expectations and knowledge on these issues has really progressed considerably in the last decade,” he said.

“We acknowledge there is much more to be done. And in the review we will investigate opportunities to recognise and where possible support the outcomes desired by First Nations people.

“We will work with First Nations people to seek to appropriately incorporate their knowledge into the evidence base that we use.”

The final focus of the Basin Plan review will be to assess the regulatory framework and the statutory design of the Basin Plan itself.

“The way water is accounted, managed and regulated is inherently complex. It reaches across state and Commonwealth legislative frameworks. That framework has continued to evolve since the Water Act (2007) and the Basin Plan came into effect in 2012,” Goodes said.

“We’ll explore how clearly understood it is and whether it can be simplified to improve the likelihood of compliance or stronger compliance. And we will use principles based on better practice regulation design to identify which elements of the Basin Plan should be considered for redesign.”

Next steps

There are a number of key elements and points of delivery for the Authority between now and 2026, Goodes said.

“We are proposing the release of an early insights paper in mid-2024. It will be a formal opportunity to let the community know the Authority’s thinking on the themes and work to date, some of the science and policy, and to enable consultation and engagement on that thinking,” he said.

“In 2025, there will be a couple of significant releases. The review must be based on an evaluation of effectiveness of the Basin Plan to date. That evaluation will be released in 2025.”

Goodes said the Basin Plan review report will look forward, learning from the reflection, evaluation and engagement, as well as the lived experience of people in the basin, and with the science, policy and engagement work that will occur over the next three years.

“The Authority has made a very clear commitment that the Basin Plan review will not be done behind closed doors. We are really looking for contributions and insights from right across the country,” he said.

“This is a plan that is required to reflect the national interest, and so every Australian is a stakeholder.

“While being accessible to all, we will be seeking to work closely with basin governments, communities, First Nations peoples and groups, non-government organisations and industry peak bodies.

“We don’t expect that everyone will agree on every point, far from it. But we want to ensure that people can access our thinking and we can access the thoughts, experiences and insights of others on the science and policy that is driving the review.”