Is the Basin Plan Over?

Blog post by Dr David Adamson, DECRA Fellow, Centre for Global Food and Resources


Australia in many ways has an enviable position in regard to water reform. Australia has embraced reform and highlighted what can be done and what needs to be done. The Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) has been essentially a natural experiment in water reform. This water reform has taken place in an environment where water supplies are highly volatile. To me the MDB looks like a kidney and it serves the same function – it drains water and salt from our land. As we use more water, it gets saltier (yes, we have spent a fortune on the salinity interception schemes that have allowed us to over extract water for private gain). As I frequently state, when dealing with the MDB we need to adapt one of the classic Game of Thrones lines to “Drought is coming”.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan (Basin Plan) is an attempt to create long term sustainability for all water users (irrigators, urban areas, other economic activities, and the environment) [Yes, we left cultural water off the table]. The idea was to reduce what was then the Current Diversion Limits (CDL) to a new Sustainable Diversion Limit (SDL) with the difference going to an environmental manager to allocate water for the national benefit (its more complicated, but this will suffice). The Basin Plan included a review mechanism to adjust the SDL either up (more water to irrigators) or down (more water to the environment).

As expected by many people, the SDL adjustment in reality could only go one way. The proposed adjustment in the Northern Basin is that the environment needs 70GL less and the Southern Basin needs 605 GL less to meet their environmental goals. At this stage, I will not enter the debate on the implementation of the Basin Plan and the impact that has on the environment, or the other 450 GL under debate, as that is well covered in my publications. Nor will I spend the time arguing the pros and cons of the SDL adjustments.

Yesterday the Senate blocked the proposed reductions in the Northern Basin’s SDL and in response, both the NSW and VIC Governments have threatened to withdraw from the Basin Plan. This excuse has allowed the NSW government an opportunity to ignore the systematic failure in its compliance on water use (see here) and potential corruption that has been identified in the Mathews and New South Wales Ombudsman scathing reports about the process and governance failures. The official MDBA view on the decision is here.

The Basin Plan has cost well over $13 billion. Most of this money has been spent in NSW and VIC. This money was spent there as they are the ones using the most water (i.e., CDL). The political threat to the COAG process has come at a time when the Federal Government and Opposition are too busily trying to point score against each other and neither side are showing leadership on this issue.

The Basin Plan was an attempt to resolve the water over-allocation problem in the MDB. The implementation of the Basin Plan has not been what I hoped and may, as I have argued in many papers, potentially left irrigators, society and the environment more exposed to adverse climate events like drought. This is unfortunate, but there are still things to be salvaged from the Basin Plan that should not be lost. The threat of the states abandoning the Basin Plan needs to be dealt with, and quickly.

Click here to read this story (and many others) on David’s blog.

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