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.