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Every 5 years the Murray–Darling Basin Authority takes stock of the Basin Plan and how it is being implemented to determine what’s working, what’s not and where improvement is needed. This page outlines the key findings and recommendations for the 2020 Basin Plan Evaluation.

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Section 1 of 5

The importance of the Murray–Darling Basin

As the largest river system on the driest inhabited continent on earth, a healthy and productive Murray–Darling Basin is crucial for food and water security. The Murray–Darling Basin:

  • is an economic and ecological powerhouse
  • is home to more than 2.2 million Australians including more than 40 First Nations
  • provides more than 3.6 million people with their drinking water
  • generates $8 billion in tourism annually
  • generates $24 billion in food and fibre
  • is home to 120 waterbird species and more than 50 native fish species
  • diverse habitats include 16 internationally-recognised and protected wetlands.

The introduction of the Murray–Darling Basin Plan in 2012 as a recognition that past attempts to share the water have not worked and a new approach, based on science, was needed. The Basin Plan is the largest water reform of its kind in the world. It aims to bring the Basin back to health to sustainably support communities now, and into the future.

The Basin Plan Evaluation is a legislated check point, 8 years after the introduction of the Murray–Darling Basin Plan. It provides an opportunity to assess:

  • how implementation is tracking
  • if outcomes are being achieved
  • areas for improvement.

This Evaluation demonstrates that the Basin Plan is having a significant and positive impact on the environment and communities, but it is not enough on its own, and governments will need to implement a range of additional, practical measures to achieve a healthy and resilient Basin.

Section 2 of 5

The Basin Plan in action

The Evaluation shows the Basin Plan is achieving important results. Progress and measurable outcomes have been observed at the Basin scale. These results should be acknowledged and celebrated, as the reform has been complex and challenging.

  • Most elements of the Basin Plan are now in place and are improving sustainable and adaptive water management. This includes limits on water use, improved compliance measures and significant improvements in water metering, monitoring and accounting.
  • Water for the environment is now a secure and enduring element of the system. This water helps make sure our rivers are flowing and is being used strategically on important environmental sites across the Basin and throughout the river system. Flows provided by the release of water for the environment are restoring the health of rivers and wetlands, and without these flows issues such as fish deaths and algae would have been much worse.
  • During a period of rapid change for many Basin communities, the Basin Plan has contributed to some positive social, economic and cultural change, this varies across the Basin. There has been significant and different distribution of impacts on communities, ranging from significant negative impacts on some small regional communities to generally positive impacts on most other Basin communities.

Section 3 of 5

Implementing the Basin Plan

Elements of the Basin Plan to achieve a healthy, working Basin

Significant progress against key elements of the Basin Plan has been made since the Plan came into effect in 2012. Further work is needed ahead of the 2026 Basin Plan Review.

Learn more about Evaluation findings on implementing the Basin Plan and the priority focus areas for the future.

Section 4 of 5

Major findings

Environment and hydrology

The Basin Plan is having a significant and positive impact on the Murray–Darling Basin’s environment. This has been crucial for sustaining water-dependent ecosystems during the recent drought but is unlikely to be sufficient to achieve long-term outcomes unless further implementation and other actions are fast-tracked.

  • The Basin Plan has protected flow regimes across much of the southern Basin, including base and fresh flows in some rivers. Positive ecological responses have resulted from water for the environment.
  • In the regulated rivers of the northern Basin, the Basin Plan has protected some rivers from the worst impacts of the unprecedented drought. Implementation of the Basin Plan has been associated with improvements to the flow regimes, including reductions in the effects from the severity and duration of dry spells and protection of the first flows after needed rain fell. This has, however, only been possible in regulated rivers where water can be delivered from storages.
  • The Basin Plan has enabled delivery of water for the environment to support the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth ecosystems through the drought, substantially avoiding the environmental degradation that occurred during the Millennium drought.
  • The Basin Plan is unable to effectively support many floodplain and wetland ecosystems until implementation of critical improved water infrastructure and river operating rules are in place. These are committed to be delivered through the package of projects to adjust limits, including supply and constraints projects. Also needed is the accreditation of all water resource plans as these set the rules on how much water can be taken from the system on an annual basis, ensuring the sustainable diversion limits are not exceeded over time. The plans also set the rules for management of water for the environment.
  • The major fish death events in 2019 demonstrate the need for whole-of-system management and are a stark reminder of the potential impacts that full implementation of the Basin Plan seeks to mitigate.
  • Basin governments and the Basin Plan need to continue to adapt and improve approaches to managing water quality and salinity, particularly in the context of low or no-flow conditions.

Click on the images below to explore the hydrological findings from the 2020 Basin Plan Evlauation.

Learn more about Evaluation findings on River flows and water for the environment.

Social, cultural and economic

During a period of rapid change for many Basin communities, the Basin Plan has contributed to some positive social, economic and cultural change in the Basin. There has been significant variation in this contribution, and important differences in the distribution of impacts on communities, ranging from significant negative impacts on some small regional communities to generally positive impacts on most other Basin communities.

  • There are multiple, linked drivers shaping conditions in communities. The largest drivers include forces of climate, globalisation, changes in the structure of the Australian economy, changes in population and demographics, and farm consolidation as well as innovation and technological changes in agriculture.
  • The need to change water use and management in the Basin from an overused system triggered the Basin Plan’s establishment. Reducing the amount of water available for use has, as expected, had impacts particularly on lower value irrigated agriculture and communities with high water dependencies. Water recovery and the various approaches used to recover water have had mixed impacts on people, businesses and communities in the Basin. Lessons from the various approaches to water recovery and their flow-on impacts to communities should be considered by governments in future efforts to move consumption to sustainable levels in the Murray–Darling river systems.
  • Water trade rules implemented through Basin Plan reforms are supporting ongoing improvement to water markets (primarily surface water) across the Murray–Darling Basin. Key Basin Plan implementation activities have supported improving the efficiency and effectiveness of markets. The improvements sought to improve drought resilience, facilitated moving water to its highest value use, and assisted with the transition to the new sustainable diversion limits.
  • Market transparency and performance have improved across the Murray–Darling Basin through actions implemented by state governments, some driven by the Basin Plan trading rules. However, there remains a lack of transparency and timeliness of market information. When this is addressed it is expected the performance of the water market will be significantly improved for the benefit of all market participants.
  • The timing, location and volume of demand is changing, and this is affecting communities and water delivery across both the southern and northern Basin. In the southern Basin this has had flow on impacts on communities, river operations and the environment.
  • There is evidence to suggest that much of the past funding to support communities to adapt to water reform could have been better targeted, particularly for those smaller communities that have had more water recovered through direct buybacks or that did not receive on-farm irrigation upgrades.
  • The complexity of the water policy and management system and the number of different government agencies involved is confusing and has worn down community confidence in some regions. This is also a major barrier for effective and coordinated engagement with water users and Basin stakeholders.
  • The involvement of First Nations peoples in water resource planning and delivery in the Basin began prior to the Water Act (2007) and the Basin Plan. The Basin Plan has formalised some of these partnerships and provided further opportunities for inclusive decision-making.
  • The Basin Plan builds on work undertaken by the state and territory governments and has provided additional opportunities for First Nations peoples to play an active role in water planning.
  • Looking ahead, there are opportunities to strengthen First Nations peoples’ water access for social, cultural and economic outcomes.
  • There is also considerable opportunity to further draw on and learn from First Nation peoples’ knowledge of the rivers and natural resource management.

Learn more about Evaluation findings on Communities, First Nations and industries.

A changing climate

The Basin Plan is having a significant and positive impact on the environment and communities, but it is not enough on its own and governments will need to implement a range of additional, practical measures to achieve a healthy and resilient Basin.

  • This Evaluation comes at the end of the driest 3 years on record for the Basin, part of the extended and unprecedented drought, which has had a large impact on water availability.
  • The change in climate will significantly impact water availability, use and management resulting in flow-on impacts to communities, industries and the environment. These changes pose the greatest risk to achieving the Basin Plan’s desired social, economic and environmental outcomes.
  • There are still elements of the Basin Plan that are yet to be delivered and progress is lagging in some crucial areas. Governments must continue to focus energy on implementation of projects to modernise the river system at local, regional and Basin-scale levels.
  • The Basin Plan was developed to consider climate change. The Evaluation provides evidence that implementation efforts have helped buffer the system from stress.
  • Climate change will require difficult decisions to be made at national, Basin and local scales. An almost certain outcome is that there will be insufficient water resources — or unpredictable rainfall/runoff patterns — to continue business as usual.

Temperature change map - relative temperature change degrees Celcius, 1910 to 2016. Source: Bureau of Meteorology

While the climate has natural variability and is prone to extremes, evidence provided by CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology identify the climate of the Basin is changing and the future is likely to be warmer, drier and include more frequent severe droughts and weather events.

The first 8 years of Basin Plan’s implementation have tested the policy in extreme climate conditions. Adapting to the changing climate will increasingly be a focus for the diverse stakeholders in the Basin. Governments and industry groups have already begun this process.

Click on this Story Map image for insights into how the Basin Plan is helping the Basin adapt to the impacts of a changing climate.

Learn more about Evaluation findings on climate.