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Published: 15 April 2020   •   Communiques

As COVID-19 challenges our way of working and communicating, the Murray–Darling Basin Authority remains committed to serving Basin communities and the nation with as little disruption as possible in the coming weeks and months. Implementing the Basin Plan and managing the River Murray on behalf of Basin governments continues to be our priority.

Despite the challenges of COVID-19, recent and widespread rain has boosted confidence among Basin communities and winter crops are now being planted. While the rain doesn't yet signify the end of the drought, it has eased pressure on water storages and water market prices and has primed the catchments. The Bureau of Meteorology's latest forecast for possibly wetter than average conditions is also promising as we approach winter.

It is evident that farmers in the Murray-Darling Basin along with the rest of the nation's producers are continuing to keep Australians fed in these difficult times. As confirmed by the National Farmers' Federation, NSW Farmers and the Australian Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud, Australian farmers produce enough food to feed three times our population. Our food supply chains are secure. The current health crisis highlights the fundamental importance of our agriculture sector. 

Any claims that our food security is at risk and that water for the environment should be co-opted for irrigation use are not only unsubstantiated but undermine the longstanding bi-partisan approach to water management and reform that balances the needs of communities, irrigated industries and the environment.

We are encouraged by the investigation into claims there is an emerging trend of underuse of water relative to the sustainable diversion limits (SDLs) in the southern Basin. The MDBA has found that water user behaviour, combined with state water allocation policies, will impact on how close use is to the SDLs. While the SDLs set clear markers on the maximum volume allowed to be taken from the Basin's rivers and groundwater resources, water user decisions around production, trade and carryover in any given year mean that not all this water may be used. There will be further  consultation with stakeholders before communicating results more broadly to assist governments and stakeholders in their decision making.

We acknowledge the efforts of the New South Wales Government in delivering 11 much anticipated water resource plans this month, covering the state's groundwater resources. The MDBA will immediately commence assessment of the plans before providing a recommendation on their accreditation in coming weeks to Water Minister Keith Pitt.  There are now just nine plans outstanding to complete the task across the Basin—the surface water plans for New South Wales—which we look forward to receiving shortly.

We welcomed a detailed briefing by MDBA staff on proposed Sustainable Diversion Adjustment Mechanism (SDLAM) projects, which include enhanced environmental water delivery, easing of constraints to water delivery and major projects such as that at the Menindee Lakes. We continue to urge state governments to improve their progress on these projects, which will deliver water savings and environmental benefits in return for lowering the water recovery required by the Basin Plan. The importance of transparency and accountability in this and other work was underscored by the Chair of the Independent Assurance Committee, Mr Allan Holmes, in his briefing to the Authority.

While the Basin states are responsible for delivering the SDLAM projects, the MDBA must provide rigorous assurance that they can be implemented as agreed. To this end, before June 2020 we will review progress and examine any prospective changes by state governments to their projects, paying particular attention to what the changes would mean for the delivery of environmental outcomes at a local and system-wide level. We will also consider what the implications would be for the calculation of adjustment to the sustainable diversion limit.

While maintaining our physical distance, it is imperative that we keep abreast of community views from across the Basin. We greatly appreciate the leadership of the Basin Community Committee and welcomed BCC Chair Phil Duncan's report on the committee members' experience in the past month of drought, flood and local responses to COVID-19. Rene Woods, Chair of the Murray Lower Darling Indigenous Nations, also reported on key issues for First Nations communities in the southern Basin and affirmed the importance of building higher levels of engagement, especially in water resource plan development, the SDL adjustment mechanism projects and environmental watering actions. We will continue to explore these important priorities in future meetings.

A highlight welcomed by all communities across the Basin in these difficult times was the arrival of the first significant flow into the Lower Darling River for more than two years, signifying the reconnection of the Basin's north and south. Full collaboration between the MDBA and state government agencies is ensuring this important flow is being managed into the Murray for the benefit of the whole system—of irrigators, communities and the river environment.

The Authority will continue to meet regularly online, and MDBA staff are working from home in accordance with government advice to ensure continuity in the agency's performance of all its responsibilities.

Professor Stuart Bunn (Acting Chair)

Ms Joanna Hewitt AO

Ms Susan Madden

Mr Phillip Glyde (Chief Executive)

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