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Published: 06 December 2019   •   Communiques

The Murray–Darling Basin Authority met in Canberra on 3-4 December 2019. Conditions across the Basin continue to be challenging, highlighted by the concerns raised in Canberra by regional communities this week and threats to the implementation of the Basin Plan – all amplified by the seriousness of the drought.

The Authority strongly encouraged all Basin governments to remain committed to the Basin Plan and work together in partnership to sustainably manage the water resources of the Murray-Darling Basin. Members acknowledged that communities are battling one of the worst droughts on record. However, the reform remains a once in a life time opportunity to restore and protect the health of this great river system for the long-term benefit of all basin communities.

It is important that different viewpoints are heard. The MDBA released a media statement earlier in the week in response to the recent community action. The Authority noted that many of the expressed concerns arise from the way water is managed and shared between Basin states and allocated within each state. These arrangements should not be confused with the Basin Plan. For more than 100 years, the states have been sharing the waters of the River Murray in accordance with water sharing rules and arrangements set out in the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement, not the Basin Plan.  Historically, significant changes have only been made to this Agreement under exceptional circumstances.

The Authority welcomed Minister Littleproud's announcement of a new investigation to be led by Interim Inspector General of Murray–Darling Basin Water Resources Mick Keelty AO APM, who attended the Authority meeting and provided insight into his investigation. The investigation, to be reported by end of March next year, will examine how changing patterns of river inflows and water use have affected state shares under the Agreement. It will also investigate the reserves that are required by the Agreement and how they impact on state water shares and subsequent water allocation policies.

Authority members noted the dire summer outlook from the Bureau of Meteorology. There is a greater than average chance of drier and warmer conditions and an elevated fire danger across the Basin over the next three months. It was noted that we are already seeing the drying of critical aquatic refuges in the north, and water quality issues such as blue green algae and stratification are becoming more widespread.
Over coming months river operations will continue to be carefully planned to efficiently deliver water orders throughout the system. Ongoing dry conditions will likely see dam levels continue to drop over summer and water availability next year will be heavily dependent on rainfall and inflows over the coming winter-spring period.

The MDBA recently released a water quality map which will be updated monthly. The map provides communities with an overview of water quality issues. Without significant inflows, there is a high risk of more fish death events this coming summer.

The Authority welcomed the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, Ms Jody Swirepik, who reported the current focus is maintaining the resilience of the river system, working in partnership with state environmental water holders and drawing on lessons from the millennium drought. The Authority reiterated how important it is to use what little environmental water there is available to protect critical habitats and maintain water quality.

The Authority were concerned about the continued commentary opposing the use of water for the environment during this drought. Under the Water Act, the security of water for the environment is the same as for any other water user. The Basin Plan was designed to ensure that when water has been allocated, the environmental water holder could continue to use their water without interference or pressure. This water is vital to keep the rivers healthy, which benefits everyone.

There have also been questions raised about making available the water held in conveyancing reserves in the storages of the Snowy River Hydro scheme. This water must be reserved for next year to be able to supply and deliver towns and communities with drinking water if the drought continues.

Claims that the reserves should be released now would put these towns at risk. We learned from the Millennium Drought that we need to plan in advance for the coming year. The Authority wants communities to have a secure water supply. The provision of critical human water needs is a cornerstone of the Basin Plan and that means water for people above all other interests.

The Authority also discussed at length the importance and progress of water resource plans. Water resource plans help to establish new rules on how much water can be taken from the system. It is the role of state governments to develop and consult on their plans with stakeholders and then present them to the MDBA for assessment. The Authority welcomed Minister Littleproud's accreditation of water resource plans for the South Australian River Murray and the Eastern Mount Lofty Ranges. Eight plans are accredited and in operation, including all of those in Queensland and South Australia.

The remaining water resource plans are on track to be assessed for accreditation in early 2020, except for those from New South Wales. NSW is required to submit all water resource plans by the end of 2019 but recent public comments from NSW Ministers suggest that submission of their water resource plans may be deferred until after the drought has broken. If this happens, it will only create greater uncertainty and confusion for water users who would then be subject to both Commonwealth and State legislation, which is not clearly aligned. The Authority emphasised that water resource plans are live instruments and can continue to be adapted and refined through time.

In his report to the meeting, Allan Holmes, chair of the Independent Assurance Committee on Compliance, reiterated his view that the MDBA's regulatory and stewardship role was the agency's pre-eminent responsibility. He encouraged the MDBA to continue to take a strong lead to ensure all states shared the regulatory load in their jurisdictions and met their obligations to implement the Basin Plan.

Authority members discussed their key role in monitoring the integrity of the Sustainable Diversion Limit (SDL) Adjustment Mechanism and associated package of projects. They noted that the impact of any changes would be assessed through the MDBA's SDL reconciliation process in 2024. The Basin Plan includes the option to re-evaluate the SDL adjustment, should it be appropriate to do so. More information is available in the MDBA's reconciliation statement.

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) Commissioner Mr Mick Keogh and Executive Director Mr Bruce Mikkelsen, who are leading the Murray–Darling Basin water markets inquiry, discussed their progress to date. The inquiry considers the role and practices of water brokers, water exchanges, investment funds and other significant traders of water allocations and entitlements on the market, as well as the role and impact of carry-over practices.

Mr Keogh noted they'd engaged with 1000 stakeholders from right across the Basin and the insights provided were valuable. They reported the level of familiarity, understanding and culture associated with water markets and water management arrangements is enormously varied throughout the Basin. The ACCC final report is due in November 2020. The Authority is making a submission to this review.


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