The condition of Lake Alexandrina at the lower reaches of the Murray River in South Australia has improved since this photo was taken at the end of the millennium drought in 2009. However, freshwater flow through to the Coorong estuary was inadequate in 2015/16. Photo by Peter Cosier.
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Getting the $13 billion Murray-Darling Basin Plan back on track

Friday, 18 May 2018  | 

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan, agreed by the Australian Parliament in 2012, was to recover 3,200 GL of water for the environment from an annual consumptive use of 13,623 GL, or to implement projects that deliver ‘equivalent’ outcomes. While this volume failed to meet minimum requirements for a healthy basin, Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s modelling demonstrated the Plan could result in improvements in river health. A healthy Murray-Darling Basin supports more than 30,000 wetlands, including 16 of Australia’s 65 Ramsar-listed wetlands. The Basin is home to over 285 native species of fishes, waterbirds, mammals, frogs, turtles, and 124 families of macroinvertebrates, including species that are nationally threated or protected by international agreements.

Five years in, two thirds of the 3,200 GL has been recovered, but progress on water recovery has slowed. Most of the water recovered to date has resulted from water reforms prior to the Basin Plan; only 530 GL has been recovered in the past five years. Basin-wide monitoring in 2015/16 showed no overall improvement in the condition of river systems although there were local improvements in salinity, water quality, and abundance and breeding success of freshwater species including plants, frogs, birds and fish. Freshwater flows into Ramsar-listed Coorong coastal lagoon, and Lakes Alexandrina and Albert Wetland were inadequate compared with flows needed to support the ecosystem.

Pressure has been exerted on governments to reduce water recovery targets. In May 2018, the Senate voted to allow irrigators to retain 19% of water earmarked for the environment under the Basin Plan (605 GL of 3,200 GL), on the basis of offset projects proposed by state governments worth $1.3 billion. The Wentworth Group’s assessment of 37 proposed offset projects showed that 25 projects are not of sufficient quality to give the Australian public confidence they will deliver genuinely equivalent outcomes, 11 require more information for proper assessment and just one project has capacity to deliver equivalent outcomes to the river basin. Implementation of inadequate offsets would effectively guarantee continued degradation of our shared natural heritage.

On the basis of our review, we believe five actions are necessary for the Basin Plan to be implemented in full by 2026:

1. Communicate a detailed schedule for recovery of the full 3,200 GL;

2. Guarantee recovery of the full 3,200 GL or genuinely equivalent outcomes;

3. Ensure that water recovered achieves measurable improvements to the river system;

4. A regional development package that puts communities at the centre of reform; and

5. Detail a risk management strategy for a future with less water.

Supporting Research

Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists (2017) Submission to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority on the Sustainable Diversion Limit (SDL) Adjustment Draft Determination. Available at (retrieved 15 May 2017).
To assess 37 'adjustment' (offset) projects for their ability to deliver environmental outcomes equivalent or better than the original Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists (2017) Review of Water Reform in the Murray-Darling Basin. Available at (retrieved 15 May 2018)
To review 13-yr progress on reform measures to reduce over-allocation of water sourced from Murray-Darling Basin to restore health of river systems in the basin.
Murray-Darling Basin Authority (2017) Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism: Draft Determination Report. Available at (Retrieved 15 May 2018).
To report on the Authority's draft determination of 38 proposed adjustment projects suggested by state governments through the 'Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism' in the Basin Plan.
Ye, Q., Giatas, G., Aldridge, K., Busch, B, Gibbs, M., Hipsey, M., Lorenz, Z., Mass, R., Oliver, R., Shiel, R., Woodhead, J and Zampatti, B. (2017) Long-Term Intervention Monitoring of the Ecological Responses to Commonwealth Environmental Water Delivered to the Lower Murray River Selected Area in 2015/16. A report prepared for the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office. South Australian Research and Development Institute, Aquatic Sciences. Available at: (retrieved 17 May 2018).
To measure the environmental (ecological, hydrological) outcomes of water recovery on the lower Murray River, South Australia.
Commonwealth Environment Water Office (2015-) Long Term Intervention Monitoring Project for six selected areas within the Murray-Darling Basin. Reports for 2014/15 and 2016/17 available at (retrieved 17 May 2018)
To track environmental outcomes of water recover for the Basin.
Newall PR, Lloyd LN, Gell PA, Walker KF (2015) Implications of environmental trajectories for Limits of Acceptable Change: a case study of the Riverland Ramsar site, South Australia. Marine and Freshwater Research 67, 738-747.
To determine limits of acceptable change in hydrology given vegetation requirements and likely climate change.
Steinfield C. (2017) Progress towards environmental outcomes in the Murray-Darling Basin. Report for the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists.
To analyse reports on environmental water recovery, allocation, delivery and monitoring since the Basin Plan was enacted in 2012.
Dept for Env and Heritage (2000) Coorong, and Lakes Alexandrina and Albert Ramsar Management Plan. South Australian Department for Environment and Heritage. 68 p.
Management plan primarily designed to fulfil Australia’s obligations under the Ramsar Convention
van Dijk, A., Beck, H.E., Crosbie, R.S., de Jeu, R.A.M., Liu, Y.Y., Podger, G.M., Timbal, B., and Viney, N., (2013) The Millennium Drought in southeast Australia (2001–2009): Natural and human causes and implications for water resources, ecosystems, economy, and society. Water Resources Research 49, 1040-1057.
To understand drivers of the worse drought on record for southeast Australia and its impacts.
Bino G, Kingsford RT, Porter J (2015) Prioritizing Wetlands for Waterbirds in a Boom and Bust System: Waterbird Refugia and Breeding in the Murray-Darling Basin. PLoS ONE 10(7): e0132682.
To prioritise wetlands for 52 waterbird species using a 30 year record of systematic aerial surveys of waterbird populations.
Carmody E. (2017) Climate change is water change: Integrating water management, mitigation and adaptation laws and policies. Australian Environment Review 31 (10), 358-363. Available at
Three aims. Second is to critiques the extent to which water and climate change linkages are addressed in the Basin Plan. The author is a policy and law reform solicitor.
Grafton, R., Pittock, J., Williams, J., Jiang, Q., Possingham, H., and Quiggin, J., (2014) Water Planning and Hydro-Climatic Change in the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia. AMBIO - A Journal of the Human Environment. 43(8), 1082-1092.
To identify threshold in water extraction determined by impacts to river ecosystem in context of historic climate variability and future climate change.
Goss, K. (2002) Report Card – Murray-Darling Basin – 2001. Water Science and Technology 45, 133-144.
To report on state of MDB and management actions including rationale for management.
Stoffels RJ, Bond NR, Weatherman K, Gawne B (2016) 2014–15 Basin-scale evaluation of Commonwealth environmental water — Fish. Final Report prepared for the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office by The Murray–Darling Freshwater Research Centre, MDFRC Publication 108/2016, November, 56pp.
To monitor response of fish across six of seven selected areas within basin-wide monitoring program. The data are for 2014/15, the first year of the five year program.
Kingsford, R.T., Bino, G., Porter J.L. (2017) Continental impacts of water development on waterbirds, contrasting two Australian river basins: Global implications for sustainable water use. Global Change Biology DOI: 10.1111/gcb.13743
To document impacts of water use on waterbirds over 32 years at three spatial scales in Lake Eyre Basin and MDB
Pittock, J., Finlayson C.M. and Howitt, J. (2013) Beguiling and risky: ‘environmental works and measures’ for wetland conservation under a changing climate. Hydrobiologia 708, 111-131.
Assess outcomes of microengineering measures that influence hydrology