The Murray-Darling Basin is a river system that can be considered the lifeblood of our country, lying at the heart of some of Australia’s prime irrigated agricultural production areas.
But for more than 25 years, successive governments have been unable, or unwilling, to form a plan that ensured a sustainable future for the system.
And the historical cycle of drought and floods has been made more complex by the addition of the climate change story as a driver for reform. But who’s reform are we talking about? Agriculturalists, bureaucrats, or environmentalists?
In November 2012, the Gillard government’s plan to return 2,750 gigalitres of water into the Murray-Darling Basin was signed into law.
However, the plan is subject to much argument and debate among the states that the river system spans. States, who in addition, represent both people whose livelihoods depend upon the river and environmental advocates.
Where is the Murray-Darling Basin?
The hyphenated name for the region is based on two interconnecting rivers, the Murray River and the Darling River. The basin drains around one-seventh of Australia’s land mass and spans more than 1 million square kilometres of land. The river system itself is 3,375 kilometres long.
The region is one of the most significant areas for agriculture in Australia, spanning most of New South Wales, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory, as well as crossing into the lower third of Queensland and southeast corner of South Australia.
Catchment area for the Murray and Darling rivers and their tributaries
Total of 23 river valleys
Basin area over 1 million square kilometres
14% of total area of Australia
Annual average rainfall 530,618 gigalitres
94% of rainfall evaporates; 2% drains into the ground; 4% ends up as runoff
Basin generates 39% of the national income derived from agricultural production
Produces 53% of Australian cereals grown for grain, 95% of oranges, and 54% of apples
Supports 28% of the nation’s cattle herd, 45% of sheep, and 62% of pigs.
The river system is of great importance to the agricultural output of Australia, as it is the main source of water in an area which receives little direct rainfall.
While neither the states, nor agricultural communities that span the river, argue that the health of the river is of critical importance, there has been much heated debate about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan developed by the Gillard government.
What does the Murray-Darling Basin Plan mean?
In a nutshell, the plan that has now become law will cut existing water allocations (which are paid for by irrigation farmers in the region) and return water into the river system.
The law is designed to set environmentally sustainable limits on the quantities of water that can be drawn from the basin. There are also objectives that define the water quality and salinity levels for the river system.
Water trading is managed by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) and is subject to caps, or limits, that were established in 1997 to maintain the health of the basin. The caps were set at a total of 11,000 gigalitres of water diverted per year, to ensure water removals did not exceed levels that would place the health of the river system under threat.
Adjustments are made for dry and wet years as required, as water inflows can be highly variable each year. In wet years, rainfall may see inflows of up to 53,000 gigalitres. In drought years, it can be as little as 1,600. On average there are 21,200 gigalitres flowing into the system.
The Gillard government’s original plan to cut water diversions was met with significant backlash. Regional communities that dot the river system and agricultural groups argued that the impact of returning large amounts of water would destroy communities and farming.
After further consultation and legal advice, the government conceded that any plan for the region must give equal weight to the environmental, social and economic impacts.
So, a balanced plan was needed; one that ensured the river system was healthy and sustainable but did not destroy the lives and livelihood of those in the region.
What’s happened so far?
Already in 2013, rice growers in NSW have had to use up to 20 per cent more than their water allocation for the current crop. So there is significant debate about whether the current allocations are enough to sustain the farming sector, which was one of the core promises of the plan.
Additional funding has also been required. The Gillard government has placated South Australia with a further $1.7 billion to inject extra water into the river system. As South Australia is at the end of the river system, it will use the pledged funding to build infrastructure upgrades including channels and dams that aim to save water and pump an additional 450 billion litres back into the river.
This will bring the total amount of water being returned to the river system to 3,200 billion litres.
The extra water would be of great benefit to the ailing River Red Gums and Black Box woodlands in the region.
This pledge in funding and more water for South Australia will put the federal government back at odds with the eastern states. For starters, the Victorian government will not support the return of this much water to the river system. The concern is that this volume will result in flooding of towns and farming land.
New South Wales won’t support the plan either, unless the federal government can prove that the planned infrastructure upgrades will provide the water savings promised.
And that is currently the key question being posed to the Gillard government: will the proposed plan work?
With the states and the Coalition demanding more answers from the federal government, the solution to deliver a viable, sustainable plan for the Murray-Darling system still seems a long way from reality.
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* Source: Murray-Darling Basin Authority