The Australian Labor Party released a plan to 'future-proof' Australia's water resources. This included a five-point plan to safeguard the Murray-Darling Basin (Basin). This article considers the five-point plan in its broader context.

The Basin

The Basin is a large geographical area of south-eastern Australia where water flows through a complex system of interconnected rivers and lakes. It covers more than one million square kilometres and flows throughout five Australian states and territories. It supports approximately 40 per cent of Australia's agriculture. Over 2.2 million people, including many Indigenous Australians, live in and rely on the Basin. The Basin supports hundreds of species of plants and animals, including 95 threatened species and 16 wetlands which have been recognised for their international importance. However, the Basin is plagued by increasing salinity, invasive species, algal blooms and erosion. These issues have been linked to insufficient water flows, with recent research revealing that net inflows to the southern Basin have decreased significantly since 1965, putting the viability of the Basin at stake.

The five-point plan

  1. Delivering on water commitments
    In 2012, the Basin Plan 2012 (Plan) was adopted by Federal Parliament with the aim of achieving healthy river ecosystems that also support water-dependent industries and provide communities with access to sufficient water supplies. The Plan initially aimed to recover 2,750 GL per year from the amount of water used in the Basin prior to the Plan. However, the Plan was amended to target 2,075 GL per year plus 450 GL per year of efficiency measures by 2024. Efficiency measures are activities that change water use practices to save water, such as more effective infrastructure and enhancement of farm productivity. However, many of the projects that would deliver the additional water have been slow to begin and are thus running behind schedule. The Plan requires the federal government to 'buyback' water from farmers to make up for any deficit of the 450 GL per year target after 2024.In this context, the federal government pledges that 450 GL per year will be delivered by 2024. The federal government sets out to achieve this by, in part, determining the cause of the delays in the delivery of projects. In doing so, the federal government aims to avoid the need to engage in buybacks, although they state that they will do so if needed.
  2. Increasing compliance and improving metering and monitoring
    As discussed in our previous article, there has been a shift to a 'zero-tolerance approach' to water theft with the recognition that 'water theft is not a victimless crime'. To this end, Victorian water corporations have been increasing their use of compliance strategies, particularly prosecutions and the issuance of infringements. The federal government plans to commit $29 million to improve metering and measuring throughout the Basin and will implement a policy of 'no meter no pump'. This would greatly improve the government's capacity to detect and deter water theft. In furtherance of this aim, the federal government also plans to strengthen the powers of the Inspector General of Water Compliance who would work alongside governments and water corporations to minimise water theft.
  3. Restoring transparency, integrity and confidence in water markets and water management
    The management of the Basin has a long and contentious history, with controversies culminating in the South Australian Royal Commission Report in which the Murray Darling Basin Authority (Authority) was described as negligent. More recently, a Senate Report raised concerns that the current arrangements are inefficient and confusing for stakeholders and potentially undermine the accountability of governments. Similarly, a recent ACCC Report identified significant deficiencies in the current water trading arrangements. The federal government pledges to restore integrity and confidence in decision-making by making the Authority's modelling and data available to the public and ensuring market surveillance is conducted.
  4. Increasing First Nations ownership and involvement in decision-making
    Approximately 75,000 Indigenous Australians, representing over 40 different First Nations cultural groups, live in the Basin. The Basin plays a profound role in the interests, values and cultural identity of many of these Indigenous Communities. Environmental damage to the Basin degrades many spiritually and culturally significant sites and hinders the carrying on of traditional activities such as fishing, ceremonies and harvesting medicinal plants. In 2018, the federal government committed $40 million to acquire water rights for Indigenous Australians in the Basin. The new federal government pledges to deliver the $40 million of cultural water promised in 2018. The federal government states that it will work with First Nations people to better inform the work of environmental agencies and distribution of the Basin's water.
  5. Updating the science
    Changes in global and regional climate patterns are having significant impacts on the availability of water throughout the Basin. Many of the effects of climate change remain uncertain and the timeframes are indeterminate. The federal government has pledged to update the scientific knowledge of the Basin by committing $8.5 million for an upcoming review of the CSIRO Sustainable Yield study and investing $3.5 million into an independent study into how climate change was impacting Ramsar wetlands.

While the federal government's five-point plan may be ambitious, its implementation would represent a positive shift in managing the Basin as a precious resource. This will be a space to watch closely over the next several years.

This publication does not deal with every important topic or change in law and is not intended to be relied upon as a substitute for legal or other advice that may be relevant to the reader's specific circumstances. If you have found this publication of interest and would like to know more or wish to obtain legal advice relevant to your circumstances please contact one of the named individuals listed.