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Collaboration at the heart of the Basin Plan

The hard-fought negotiations that delivered the Basin Plan demand innovation and collaboration, says MDBA chief executive Phillip Glyde.

 This year, the work of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) has come into sharp focus as the Australian Parliament has turned its attention to proposed amendments to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

We welcome this attention ‒ it is clear that the Plan can only be fully and properly implemented if it is allowed to adapt to new evidence, to new science and greater understanding of the Basin’s natural and social complexities.

That’s not always easy. Views about the future of our nation’s most important water resource can differ greatly between sectional interests and from one end of the river system to the other.

But the very thing that gave the Murray-Darling Basin Plan its impetus and brought state, territory and commonwealth governments to the table in 2012 is its great strength ‒ the common desire, no matter where you are based, to secure the future for the environment that underpins the Basin’s health and supports all 2.6 million people who live and work in the Basin and the industries that generate jobs and export dollars for Australia.

The hard-fought negotiations and agreements that delivered the Basin Plan demand innovation and collaboration. They insist that the Plan recognises new thinking and new information. It really does stretch everyone ‒ governments, farmers, environmental water managers, local people ‒ to treat our water resources with care, with the needs of the environment on a par with those of farmers.

And, to everyone’s credit, it is working. The Plan has largely achieved what it set out to achieve in its first five years of implementation. We’re seeing localised improvements in fish numbers and migration, bird breeding and vegetation recovery. There is plenty of work ahead to achieve the full basin-wide results we are aiming for; the impact of a hundred years of development can’t be turned around overnight.

In restoring a greater share of water to the environment, the Basin Plan asks farmers to do more with less ‒ about 20 per cent less across the basin in part through infrastructure upgrades to improve water use efficiency. Likewise, the Plan requires that we manage water earmarked for the environment as efficiently and effectively as possible.

The ability to flex and adapt to best practice as part of its full and proper implementation is reflected in an amendment to the Basin Plan, currently before the Australian Parliament. The amendment would reduce the amount of water that needs to be recovered in the southern Basin, by allowing innovations in the way the South Australian, Victorian and New South Wales governments manage and deliver water at specific sites.

After thorough analysis, the MDBA is confident that the government initiatives have the capacity to meet the Plan’s environmental targets, while recovering 605GL less water from productive use.

The projects involve directing water onto the floodplains more often by increasing flows beyond the current river capacity or by piping water to high-value areas. It is about reconfiguring and changing the way the Menindee Lakes are managed to reduce evaporation and increase the reliability of low flows down the Darling River. The amendment will also facilitate changes to the rules governing river operations so they can integrate environmental water delivery more effectively.

These, and other measures, amount to smarter and more collaborative ways of managing water resources, with benefits across jurisdictions.

Community input will be essential as the state governments firm-up the development of these works and measures. The MDBA’s role is to provide independent assessment of the environmental effectiveness of projects, which must be completed by 2024.

It is important to stress that governments together have also agreed to increase the amount of water available for the environment by 450 gigalitres. To deliver this water back into the rivers by 2024 will require further modernisation of water infrastructure on- and off-farm in ways that have neutral or positive social and economic outcomes.

The MDBA remains a fiercely independent statutory authority, committed to working with all jurisdictional partners to ensure that by pulling together we can achieve the Murray-Darling Basin’s future sustainability on behalf of all Australians.

Phillip Glyde is the chief executive of the MDBA.

Top image: Water earmarked for the environment has boosted the health of Barmah Forest, Victoria

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