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Investment fund shows agriculture and environmental interests can coexist in Murray-Darling

As debate about the management of the Murray-Darling Basin continues, an initiative from The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is proving agriculture and environmental interests can coexist in one of Australia’s most important river systems.

The Murray-Darling Basin Balanced Water Fund was established by TNC in 2014, along with fund manager Kilter Rural and the Murray-Darling Wetlands Group.

The fund invests in permanent water rights in the southern Murray-Darling Basin and allocates those to irrigators and the environment.

TNC Australia Country Director Rich Gilmore said the aim of the fund is to balance the water needs of irrigators, communities and nature.

This is important as the Basin not only irrigates a third of Australia’s food supply, but is also home to a diverse array of animals, plants and ecosystems, including 35 endangered birds and 16 endangered mammals.

Gilmore described the strategy of the fund as “the way the Murray-Darling Basin Plan (MDBP) is supposed to work, but on a smaller scale”.

“The magic of the fund is that, often, the best time to water a wetland is when it’s wet, and the best time to water a crop is when it’s dry,” he said.

“We allocate water for agriculture and the environment when they need it most, and happily those are often different times.

“This helps reinstate the natural wetting and drying rhythms that the Basin has adapted to over hundreds of millennia.”  

This approach has had promising results. Irrigators get access to water on a secure, long-term, fixed-price contract, while wetlands that have received water are thriving.

Gilmore said some ecosystems TNC has delivered water to have increased in the number and variety of birds by 150% to 300%, and aquatic plant life has increased tenfold.

“The fund meets the needs of rural communities and those who grow cotton and wool, because that’s important, but it does it in a way that’s sustainable,” Gilmore said.

“It shows the perceived conflict between agriculture and nature is not only unhelpful, but unnecessary.”

Although the fund is currently on a relatively small scale, Gilmore said it has great potential.

“We think this could be scaled massively to help complete the MDBP … It’s an idea whose time has come,” he said.

“All water recovered for the environment to-date should remain, but as we think about the water that's left, innovative models like our fund can play a big role.”

For TNC, Gilmore said the priority is for the Basin Plan to be implemented on time and in full.

“It’s important that social and economic considerations are taken into account, but not at the expense of very critical environmental water recovery targets set with multi-stakeholder support in 2012.”

He said a lot of the political heavy lifting has already been done in putting together the MDBP, and that it is now about implementation.

“With all the controversy over the MDBP, it’s important we stop and reflect on what the plan has achieved,” he said.

“It has recovered about 2000GL of water already. There’s some way to go and everybody – irrigators, governments and conservation groups – needs to do their bit if the Murray-Darling Basin is going to be healthy.”

To read all our Murray-Darling Basin coverage, click here.