More Than Flow for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan

Stefanie Schulte, Policy Manager at the NSW Irrigators’ Council, reflects on the last 18 months of Australia’s water reform process, ahead of this week’s Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council Meeting in Adelaide.

Tomorrow, State and Federal water ministers will gather in Adelaide for another Ministerial Council meeting to discuss the next steps in the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. It will be an interesting meeting – not only because the Murray-Darling Basin Authority is scheduled to brief the ministers on the recently completed Northern Basin Review but also because there are likely to be further discussions around the most recent amendments to Australia’s Water Act 2007 (Cth).

Where are we at?

Four years since the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was signed into law, we have “nearly” completed the Basin Plan’s environmental water recovery target. As of 30 September, the Australian Government has recovered 1996.1GL, or 73 per cent, of the 2750GL target. While that technically leaves 754 GL to be recovered, we could be as close as 104GL if Murray-Darling Basin states find suitable ‘supply projects’.

What are these projects?

These supply projects can be works, revised river operations, river management rule changes and other measures that enable the use of less water but still achieve the Murray-Darling Basin Plan’s environmental outcomes. Examples of projects that have been submitted by the states include infrastructure modification at the large Nimmie Caira wetlands in southern New South Wales, improved flow management works in the Murrumbidgee River and water saving operational changes at the Menindee Lakes storages on the Darling River.

In total, there are 37 projects to date – all of which are ‘flow’ related.

Timing

We nearly missed the chance to consider these supply projects. Prior to the last Ministerial Council meeting in April 2016, Basin states were scrambling to finalise their package of supply measures (as well as efficiency and constraints reduction projects) before the Federal Government went into caretaker mode due to the 2nd July Australian Federal election.

However, due to a shortened timeframe, Basin ministers requested amendments to the Australian Water Act to include a second notification period (extending final project deadlines to 30 June 2017) to give the states more time to develop further projects – including ‘no-flow’ complementary projects like carp control, installation of cold water pollution mitigation infrastructure, and proactive management of wetlands.

All these projects have the potential to lead to significant environmental benefits without the obsessive focus on flows and further water recovery from irrigated agriculture. We now have an opportunity to consider these and other ‘non-flow’ projects.

Last week, the Water Legislation Amendment (Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment) Bill 2016 was passed – amending the Water Act to allow for another 12 months to develop further supply measure projects, as agreed by the Basin state water ministers and Federal Government.

The amendment will be on the agenda tomorrow – giving irrigators hope that we are finally moving away from a ‘just flow’ discussion.

Flow vs Outcome

These ‘complementary projects’ are not new but they have not featured in Australia’s water reform process – until now.

Since the early days of the Water Act 2007 (Cth), we talked about flows, river heights, flow constraints and water recovery amounts on behalf of the environment.

We have a Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder who manages the largest portfolio of water entitlements in the Murray-Darling Basin; we have a Basin-wide environmental watering strategy that speaks of base flows and flow rates as ‘expected environmental outcomes’ and we have models that are unable to measure anything but flows.

However, the rhetoric in Canberra appears to be changing – there is more talk about ‘outcomes’ and less talk about ‘flows’ – and the recent legislative changes over the last 18 months appear to confirm this trend.

Legislative Amendments

Aside from last week’s Water Legislation Amendment (Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment) Bill 2016, we have also seen two other legislative amendments that have shifted the discussion from ‘flow’ to ‘outcomes’ in the Basin Plan debate.

In late 2014, the Australian Government conducted the first statutory review of Australia’s Water Act. After extensive consultation, 23 recommendations were submitted by the review panel, two of which related to the trade restrictions of the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH).

Under the original Water Act, the CEWH was constrained in trading water except in very limited circumstances. If he traded, he was required to use the proceeds for further purchases/sales of water elsewhere. The two recommendations and the subsequent legislative amendments to the Water Act 2007 (Cth) changed these trade restrictions and provided the CEWH with greater flexibility to use its extensive water entitlement portfolio to achieve broader environmental outcomes – including using the proceeds from trade for environmental infrastructure that better enables the delivery of environmental water.

In addition, the Australian Government legislated a cap on water purchases under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in 2015. The intention was to focus the ‘remaining water recovery task on infrastructure upgrades, on-farm and supply efficiency projects, and environmental works and measures’ instead of simply removing more productive water from communities.

This legislative amendment did not change the overall environmental water recovery target of 2750GL but it changed the method by which the Federal Government was to acquire the water entitlements – acknowledging that previous water purchases have had a devastating social and economic impact on regional communities. In effect, the cap acknowledged the triple bottom line objective of the Australian Water Act 2007 (Cth) and actively considered regional communities in Australia’s water reform process.

I wonder whether we have finally opened a new chapter in Australia’s water reform process. A chapter that steps away from the narrow focus on ‘flow’ and is actively working towards achieving long lasting environmental outcomes for Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin that don’t leave regional communities behind.

Tomorrow will be a good indicator of whether we are progressing on this new path or whether we revert to the same old tool of ‘just adding water’.

One thought on “More Than Flow for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan

  1. Pingback: Uncertain Futures: Money and Politics in the Murray-Darling Basin | WaterWords