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A fair share

Australia is the driest inhabited continent in the world and water is arguably its most valuable natural resource.

Most of the rivers in the Murray–Darling Basin can be considered 'working rivers' — where water is captured, extracted or diverted to support communities, agriculture and other industries.

The people of the Basin also value healthy river and floodplain ecosystems. Ecosystems perform important functions that benefit the Basin environment as well as the communities living in the Basin. These functions include filtering water so that is clean for drinking and agricultural use; nutrient-cycling between the river and floodplain to enrich riverine environments; providing habitat for fish breeding, which is essential for anglers; and providing an environment that supports tourism, recreation and cultural values.

For ecosystems to do their job, there needs to be a balance between the water available to the environment and the water that is used by communities and industries. This is what the concept of a 'healthy working river' is all about.

The River Murray commissioners after their first meeting.
The River Murray commissioners after their first meeting. Photo from the MDBA historical collection.

Water agreements

As early as the 1860s, governments were talking about agreements to share the weirs and locks necessary to assist with the navigation of paddle-steamers up and down the River Murray. Agreements again came to the fore when irrigation schemes were established on the River Murray in the 1880s.

After much negotiation, the River Murray Waters Agreement commenced in 1914. It was the first water sharing arrangement between the Basin states — South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales — and the Commonwealth.

The agreement has evolved and expanded over the last century to accommodate the demands of growing populations and ongoing development of land and water resources. The agreement has also changed with increasing knowledge of environmental issues and greater understanding of the importance of a healthy river system.

The modern equivalent of the 1914 agreement is the Murray–Darling Basin Agreement. The purpose of the agreement is to "promote and co-ordinate effective planning and management for the equitable, efficient and sustainable use of the water and other natural resources of the Murray–Darling Basin".

Water management

The Murray–Darling Basin Authority is responsible for managing the Basin's water resources, so that there are good water management policies and strategies in place and the Basin remains a healthy working river system into the future. The MDBA works closely with state governments, local councils, catchment management authorities and natural resource management boards to manage the Basin in the best interest of the Australian nation.

The Basin Plan was developed and accepted by Federal Parliament in 2012. It strives to balance the management of the rivers and water resources between modern demands on the river system and the need to sustainably manage the natural environment. A key aspect of the Basin Plan is a process of proposing and refining how much surface water and groundwater (sustainable diversion limits) can be used by communities, irrigation and industry without long-term detrimental effect on the environment.

The Basin Plan recognises that the rivers of the Murray–Darling Basin are working rivers and strives to find the best balance between the environment, economies and communities. It provides a pathway for change to provide a healthy working and sustainable Basin.