Developing the Basin Plan

Governments of south-eastern Australia have long grappled with the complex issue of sharing the water of the Murray–Darling Basin. Since the 1860s there have been agreements and plans about extraction of water from the River Murray and the Basin as a whole. With time, it was recognised that too much water was being extracted but it was a difficult task to strike a balance between competing end users of the water, and to achieve agreement between states.

Significant progress in the reform of water regulation and recovery of water for the environment was made from the 1980s onwards. However the fundamental issue remained, that too much water was being harvested or extracted from the Basin. In parallel with the first River Murray Agreement in the early 1900s, it took a significant and extended drought to expose the limits and weaknesses of how water in the Basin was managed and to highlight the need for continuing reform.

The response of the Australian Government in 2007 was the passing of the Water Act 2007 (Cwlth), with bipartisan support in the Australian Parliament. As a requirement of the Water Act, the MDBA was required to develop the Basin Plan, with the primary objective of determining a sustainable limit of water extraction in the Basin. The Plan was passed through parliament, also with bipartisan support, in November 2012.

We held hundreds of meetings with communities as the Basin Plan was being developed. Photo by MDBA.

The development of the Plan required several years of research and analysis to understand how much water could be taken from the Basin for consumptive use without compromising key environmental sites (eg. the Barmah Forest) and key environmental functions (eg. sufficient water flow to ensure lower reaches of the River Murray are not saline). The science behind the Plan was independently reviewed by Australian and international scientists.

The Plan also took into account a wide range of social and economic information. It became clearly apparent that the reduction in water availability for human use would have an impact on communities, businesses and industries in the Basin. Analysis of the social and economic effects was conducted by the MDBA and other commissioned experts, to help achieve the best balance between water users and the environment.