A guide to what’s happened in the Murray-Darling Basin so far
The Murray-Darling Basin has been in the headlines all summer, with mass fish deaths sparking debate about the management of this vital resource.
For a refresher on everything that’s happened in the Basin recently, check out our coverage below.
And to get an overview of the key developments from 1914 to today, take a look at this infographic.
What is the Murray-Darling Basin?
The Murray-Darling Basin covers more than 1 million square kilometres across Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory.
The major rivers of the Basin include the Murray, Darling, Murrumbidgee and Lachlan, although the system involves many other rivers and tributaries.
More than 2 million people live in the Basin, and thousands of businesses rely on it for irrigation and water. As well as agriculture, the Basin’s water resources are extremely important for Indigenous culture, recreation, tourism and human consumption.
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan (MDBP)
The MDBP was signed into law in 2012, aiming to redress the over-allocation of water licences and return more water to the environment. A central objective of the MDBP is ensuring a “return to an environmentally sustainable level of extraction” for ground and surface water.
What’s happened so far?
In June 2017, a report found provisions for vulnerable ecosystems under the MDBP were at risk unless the Federal Government re-commenced water buybacks.
The report, compiled by the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, stated that the $7.1 billion spent since 2007 on implementing the MDBP would be wasted unless minimum environmental flows were met.
In July, a Four Corners investigation revealed that billions of litres of environmental water – bought with taxpayer money – were reportedly pumped out by Barwon-Darling irrigators, who might have tampered with meters to mask their water volumes.
Following this, the Federal Government ordered an independent review of Murray-Darling Basin water use.
“While the government is confident about COAG’s [Council of Australian Governments] implementation plan, it is important that Basin communities and all Australians have confidence that the rules that underpin fair and lawful water use throughout the Basin are being followed,” then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said at the time.
In November, the NSW Ombudsman released a damning report about maladministration of NSW’s water portfolio, including water theft, allegations of special treatment for irrigators and meter tampering.
The Ombudsman also revealed three previous reports handed to government departments had not been made public.
March 2018 saw the NSW Ombudsman begin procedures to prosecute irrigators involved in the theft of Murray-Darling Basin water, following months of criticism that the regulator was providing inflated numbers of enforcement actions.
2018: “Crunch year” for the MDBP
After no shortage of scandal, ill-will and frustration over the waterway in 2017, 2018 was “crunch year” for the MDBP, Jamie Pittock of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists said.
We ran an in-depth feature in the February 2018 issue of Current magazine outlining the challenges for the MDBP.
Also in February, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) released a progress report, which revealed that while the MDBP was proving to be effective, there was still a long way to go.
“The MDBP is just one of a number of factors affecting socio-economic outcomes in Basin communities – and we will be undertaking more detailed work to better understand the impacts of the Basin Plan on communities,” MDBA Chief Executive Phillip Glyde said at the time.
Not everyone believed the MDBP was on track. A group of 12 leading Australian experts, including water scientists and economists, signed the Murray-Darling Declaration, urging fundamental changes to Murray-Darling Basin administration.
The group claimed that the billions invested in irrigation projects under the MDBP were failing to produce positive environmental outcomes.
Also in February, the Australian Senate voted against amendments to the MDBP that would have allowed an increase in water available to farms in the Basin’s northern region.
As a result, NSW water minister Niall Blair declared that his state would “now start the process of withdrawing … from the plan”, while Victorian water minister Lisa Neville said “the plan is over” even though Victoria is not part of the Northern Basin.
In May, the Senate passed two sets of amendments to the MDBP. This included stronger compliance and better protections for environmental water, as well as positive outcomes for Indigenous communities and Basin communities.
In August 2018, Queensland cotton irrigator John Norman, CEO of Norman Farming, was arrested over an alleged $20 million scam involving federal funds designated for Murray-Darling water efficiency projects.
It was alleged that Norman submitted fraudulent claims, including falsified invoices, relating to six water efficiency projects as part of the Queensland Government’s Healthy HeadWaters scheme between 2010 and 2017.
With the entire state of New South Wales in drought – and almost one-quarter classified as being in intense drought – NSW Minister Pru Goward called for a “temporary change in water policy” that would see environmental water entitlements sold to farmers to keep livestock alive.
“Whilst we pride ourselves on our care for the environment, we must begin to investigate whether to immediately access environmental water flows for fodder crop production in the Southern Tablelands to keep breeding herds alive,” Goward said in August.
As 2018 drew to a close, it seemed like progress was being made on the MDBP, with Australia’s state and federal water ministers agreeing on how environmental water will be returned to the Murray-Darling Basin after six years of debate.
But the new year brought with it a new host of controversy, with mass fish deaths sparking debate about water management in the Basin.
The town of Menindee in western NSW continues to deal with fallout after three mass fish kills in a matter of weeks.
According to the NSW Department of Primary Industries, the fish deaths happened when a cool change hit the Menindee region, killing off an existing blue-green algal bloom. This resulted in less dissolved oxygen in the water, which in turn killed the fish.
Murray Darling Basin Authority Chief Executive Phillip Glyde said a lack of water flowing into the northern rivers, and the impact of a century of over-allocation of water resources throughout the basin, had contributed to the event.
SA Royal Commission report released
In January 2018, the South Australian (SA) Government established the Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission. Commissioner Bret Walker handed down his 756-page report last week, finding the MDBA failed to take “climate change risks” to the Basin into account.
“This … demonstrates ongoing negligence by the MDBA,” the report states.
“It is a dereliction of its duties. It is not just indefensible, but incomprehensible.”
In his initial response to the report, the MDBA’s Glyde rejected some of the key criticisms set out in the report.
“ … Commissioner Bret Walker has made it clear he believes the MDBA is guilty of maladministration and of acting unlawfully,” Glyde said.
“On behalf of the MDBA, I reject those conclusions in the strongest possible terms. We haven’t broken the law.
“ … The accusations in relation to acting unlawfully appear to stem from a difference in opinion about the policy intent of this critically important water reform.”
Stay tuned for our Murray-Darling Basin Series, where we’ll be speaking to government, irrigators, local communities, Indigenous Australians, scientists and environmentalists about the main issues in the Basin.
To read all our Murray-Darling Basin coverage, click here.