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Frequently asked questions – Basin Plan amendments – northern Basin

The Murray–Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) reviewed the impacts of the Basin Plan in the northern Basin. This review resulted in the MDBA proposing amendments to the Basin Plan. These amendments became law in July 2018.

Some of the questions asked during the amendment process are below.

Why did you do the Northern Basin Review?

The Basin Plan is designed to be an adaptive plan that is open to new and changing information. We needed to do this review because when the Basin Plan was made in 2012, it was recognised that we did not have the kind of robust information we needed about some parts of the northern Basin and their specific requirements. The Northern Basin Review was therefore an opportunity to improve our knowledge and understanding of communities, industries and the needs of the environment in the northern Basin.

Does this mean you got the Basin Plan wrong back in 2012?

No, we did not get the original settings wrong back in 2012. The Basin Plan was made using the best information we had at the time. Even though it was the best available information, we recognised and committed to improving the knowledge base for the northern Basin. The Northern Basin Review achieved this, and as a result, we have improved understanding of the needs of communities, industries and environment in the northern basin. The Basin Plan is an adaptive plan and reviews like the Northern Basin Review are designed to allow the plan to change as better information comes to light.

What was done?

Over the last 4 years, the MDBA has undertaken comprehensive research into 3 main areas of work:

Social and economic work

The MDBA’s social and economic research focused on 21 communities to better understand the impacts of water recovery on irrigation-dependent communities. This research looked at how changes in water availability affected the area of irrigation and the flow-on effect on community employment, both in agriculture and other types of jobs such as retail, transport and government services.

Environmental science projects

We looked at the water needs of water-dependent ecosystems in the northern Basin, including studies on fish, birds and vegetation growth. This work focused mainly on 2 catchments: the Condamine–Balonne and Barwon–Darling. This was because the MDBA thought the science that was used in making the Basin Plan wasn't as strong as for the other northern catchments. We now have a much better understanding of the variety of flows the rivers need to be healthy. This includes freshes, which connect and refresh waterholes and support native fish movement and breeding, as well as large overbank flows, which are important for connecting the river and its floodplain. Read more about our environmental science projects.

Hydrological modelling

The development of rivers in the Basin has changed the way these rivers flow and connect. Less water in the system means changes to flood heights and variability in flows. How rivers change with different amounts of flow was a key focus in the northern basin review. We looked at a range of water recovery options above and below the current setting of 390 gigalitres (GL) to understand how industries, communities and the environment respond to changes in flow. Read a summary of the hydrological modelling report.

Did you consult with people?

We talked to people in northern Basin communities to find out if the results of our research and investigations aligned with the peoples’ understanding of what’s happening within their community and to find where there might be gaps in knowledge.

Key stakeholders have been involved in the northern Basin review since the beginning. We set up an advisory committee made up of people who live and work in the northern Basin to give us advice on how to implement the Basin Plan in the north. The Northern Basin Advisory Committee (NBAC), irrigators, conservation groups, state agencies and others, through regular meetings with peak bodies, intergovernmental meetings and advisory groups also informed the work of the review. We also worked closely with the Basin Community Committee (BCC), the Lower Balonne Working Group, and the Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations (NBAN).

In 2016, we consulted extensively with people in northern Basin communities to understand perspectives on water management in the north and to share the findings of the work conducted for the northern Basin review. We wanted to check and re-check our work and ensure that our knowledge aligns with the community’s knowledge.

What is the difference between local and shared reductions?

The proposed 320 gigalitres (GL) recovery target is divided into shared and local reduction targets.

A local reduction target is the volume of water needed to meet the local environmental needs of a catchment. Local recovery in any catchment can also provide benefits for the catchments downstream, and the overall health of the system.

The shared reduction is the volume required in addition to the local reduction in each catchment to meet environmental outcomes at the bottom of the system in the Barwon–Darling. This volume is called the shared reduction because all tributaries to the Barwon–Darling River can potentially contribute to meeting this target.

The proposed local reduction targets add up to 279 GL, and the proposed shared reduction is 41 GL, making a combined total of 320 GL.

Why are you making recommendations that change the shared water recovery targets?

The northern Basin is a connected system, with some catchments more connected than others. Local recovery in any catchment can provide benefits for the catchments below it, and the overall health of the system. The shared reduction is the volume required in addition to the local reduction in each catchment to meet environmental outcomes at the bottom of the system in the Barwon–Darling.

The new environmental science and hydrological modelling shows Barwon–Darling environmental outcomes are best achieved by recovering water within the catchment itself, which is why the Authority has proposed to increase the local recovery target in the Barwon–Darling to 32 gigalitres (GL). This volume recognises both recovery-to-date, and the negative social and economic effects of a larger water recovery amount.

Well-connected tributaries also contribute to flows in the Barwon–Darling, specifically the contributions of the Macquarie and the Border Rivers to baseflows, and in wet years the contributions of the Condamine–Balonne and the Namoi to peak flows.

To further improve environmental outcomes in the Barwon–Darling, targeted recovery combined with management and protection of environmental flows, would make the most of recovered water.

On this basis, the Authority is proposing that the shared reduction be reduced from 143 GL to 41 GL.

Why are you making recommendations that change the local water recovery targets?

A local reduction target is the volume of water needed to meet the local environmental needs of a catchment.

For example, our analysis showed that in the Namoi there is marked improvement in river, floodplain and wetland connectivity and health with 20 gigalitres (GL) of recovery compared to the current recovery volume of 13 GL.

On the other hand, the proposed local recovery volume in the Macquarie is 55 GL, which is 10 GL less than Basin Plan settings. The results show that local environmental needs in the Macquarie are met with this lower volume, even when considering a higher system constraint at Marebone Break. However, an even smaller volume is highly likely to result in wetland deterioration.

In the Border Rivers, all water recovery scenarios considered by the Authority only offer slight improvement in environmental outcomes. While substantial environmental improvement cannot be achieved with water recovery alone, an increase in the local recovery target aims to offer a slight improvement.

On the New South Wales side, there was no new evidence to suggest a change from the volumes set in the Basin Plan. Therefore, the Authority proposes to leave the New South Wales Border Rivers local reduction unchanged at 7 GL.

On the Queensland side, water flowing out of the Border Rivers can meet downstream environmental outcomes with less impact on Queensland's other northern Basin communities. It is proposed that the local recovery volume in the Queensland Border Rivers be 14 GL, an increase of 6 GL from Basin Plan settings.

How can we achieve the environmental outcomes with less water?

Reducing the recovery target to 320 gigalitres (GL) offers better social and economic outcomes for some irrigation communities compared with current Basin Plan settings. However we recognise that under 320 GL recovery environmental outcomes are slightly reduced compared to the Basin Plan.

For this reason, the Authority proposes that the water recovery target be reduced in the northern Basin from 390GL to 320 GL providing there are commitments from the Commonwealth, Queensland and New South Wales governments to implement a number of toolkit measures to improve water management in the northern Basin.

If agreed, the toolkit measures will increase the Authority's confidence that water managers can further enhance river health even with a reduced recovery volume. The measures should provide river managers with the ability to better protect, coordinate and boost environmental outcomes for particular flows as they pass through the system. Communities, floodplain graziers and First Nations people may also benefit from the implementation of these measures.

Agreement to implement the toolkit measures is a decision for the Commonwealth, New South Wales and Queensland governments to make. The Ministerial Council has provided in-principle support for the implementation of the toolkit measures and the Authority has confidence that the intended environmental outcomes will be achieved.

What are these toolkit measures?

We heard from many community members about the need to consider more than just water recovery to improve environmental outcomes. Toolkit measures are a way of improving outcomes of environmental watering and also support the lowering of water recovery targets to help reduce social and economic impacts. While any additional measures are not the responsibility of the MDBA, the Northern Basin Advisory Committee has recommended a suite of toolkit measures for the Basin governments to consider implementing.

Options for toolkit measures include: protection of environmental flows, coordinated delivery of environmental water, active management of environmental water entitlements, construction of new fishways and addressing cold water pollution issues through improved dam operations, and a new package of constraints measures in the Gwydir Valley, among with other potential measures.

How did you consider social, environmental and economic outcomes together?

We developed a triple bottom-line framework to guide the decision-making process, due to the amount of information, the complexity of the decision-making and to ensure the community could have confidence in the process.

This framework allowed the Authority to consider all of the evidence – social, economic and environmental – of the different modelled scenarios, side by side, and make a considered decision in proposing the new settings for the northern Basin.

What is being done to protect environmental water from being pumped by irrigators further downstream?

We are aware of concerns within the community about the protection of environmental flows, in particular in the Barwon–Darling. Many local communities and individuals told us through the consultation that there is no point in recovering water from one place if it is drawn out of the system by another water user before reaching its ultimate destination.

One of the toolkit measures we propose is to look at existing management arrangements to see whether there is a need to change any of these to ensure that water users are able to access their entitlement, while also allowing increased environmental flows to pass down the system as intended.

How are communities going to be affected by the proposed changes?

We modelled the impacts of different water recovery scenarios on 21 different irrigation-dependent communities. We found water recovery to date has already affected some communities more than others, and these communities are still feeling the effects of water recovery, especially smaller economies that are more irrigation-dependent.

For example, Warren and Collarenebri experienced large effects on employment rates from water recovery which occurred some time ago. The effects on employment add to the substantial changes beyond the Basin Plan already occurring in those places.

In a further 6 communities – Bourke, Moree, Narromine, St George, Trangie and Wee Waa – the effects are likely to be smaller but still noticeable, even against the backdrop of the other changes affecting those communities.

A number of other communities are likely to experience small effects under these proposed settings, however this level of change is difficult to distinguish from other changes affecting those communities. Read the Northern Basin overview report.

If these proposed amendments are adopted what does it mean for the southern basin?

There is a hydrologic link between the northern and southern Basin. The proposed change in northern Basin sustainable diversion limit settings is likely to result in a change in the amount of water flowing into Menindee Lakes and into the southern Basin. However, it won’t have a significant impact. Our research shows a recovery reduction of 70 gigalitres (GL) only results in 7 GL per year less flows reaching Menindee Lakes compared to the current Basin Plan settings.

Will a similar review be conducted in the southern basin?

The MDBA is not reviewing sustainable diversion limits (SDL) in the southern Basin at this point because Basin governments agreed in 2012 to the SDL adjustment mechanism as their preferred way of achieving better social, economic and environmental outcomes in the south. This work is ongoing with outcomes expected to be known in late 2017, as part of an evaluation of the Basin Plan.

Can I provide feedback on the proposed changes?

The submission period was open from 22 November 2016 until 24 February 2017. This was an opportunity for the public to provide feedback on the proposed amendments. You can read the published submissions here.

We reviewed submissions and feedback received at the information sessions that were held around the Basin and submitted the proposed amendment to the Ministerial Council.