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Northern Basin projects

The northern Murray–Darling Basin includes northern New South Wales and southern Queensland in a complex network of people and places, industries and organisations with many and varied needs.

The northern Basin has a unique climate and water management arrangements which mean a sustainable river system cannot be achieved by simply delivering water for the environment. To achieve a healthy working river system for the northern Basin, further measures are required.

The Murray–Darling Basin Authority conducted a four-year review ending in 2016 that resulted in a 70GL reduction to the 390 GL per year water recovery target in the north, on the basis that New South Wales and Queensland governments adopt a range of measures with assistance from the Australian Government. These measures are designed to complement and support the implementation of the Basin Plan and include:

  • ‘Toolkit measures’ to improve water management practices and passage of flow without depending on additional water. Initiatives will promote fish movement and habitat through infrastructure works such as fishway construction, or changing water sharing rules and arrangements to better protect water for the environment.
  • A Basin Commitments package to protect water for the environment, improve compliance with water laws, and create opportunities for local communities and First Nations peoples.
  • A response package to the Menindee fish death event to improve the health of native fish across the Murray–Darling Basin. This includes improved metering, an enhanced knowledge base for ongoing water management, fencing off riverbanks from livestock to improve water quality and establishing new hatcheries to kick start fish recovery.

The measures, along with other activities in the northern Basin, will protect water for the environment, improve compliance with water laws, improve river management across the northern Basin and create opportunities for local communities, including First Nations. 

Toolkit

The toolkit includes:

 

Addressing system constraints in the Gwydir catchment

Options to support event-based environmental water delivery

The protection of environmental flows

Management and coordination of environmental water

The strategic acquisition of the remaining water recovery in the northern Basin

Environmental works to promote fish movement and habitat including fishway construction and cold-water pollution control.

 

 

Basin commitments package

The commitments package will assist to:

 

Strengthening the protection of environmental flows

Establish a Northern Basin Commissioner (replaced by Inspector-General of the Murray­−Darling Basin)

Strengthen compliance with Basin water laws

Improve outcomes for First Nations people

Address the social and economic impacts of the Basin Plan

Improve confidence in the Northern Basin Review data.

 

Over the coming years, Basin governments will work with local communities to ensure local knowledge and needs are considered in project design and delivery. Some initiatives have already begun, while others may take many years to complete. All measures are scheduled to be in operation by 30 June 2024.

Environmental projects

Initiatives are underway to improve water delivery and water management.

These projects will include:

  • improved real-time management of environmental water flows (also called active management)
  • coordination and delivery of water for the environment
  • environmental works and measures projects to improve native fish and broader ecological outcomes in the northern Basin. This includes protecting habitats and promoting fish movement (such as fishways)
  • improved mechanisms such as temporary trade, options over pumping and store and release to improve flexibility to deliver water for the environment to meet important flow targets.

These improvements will benefit the northern Basin river system, improve the habitat for animals during dry times, and improve the health of rivers downstream.

Queensland and New South Wales have developed feasibility proposals for environmental works and measures projects, which includes the Gwydir constraints project, for assessment by the Australian Government. These proposals will go through a Ministerial approval process and successful projects will be announced by the end of 2020.

Protecting water for the environment

A range of initiatives are being implemented to strengthen compliance with water laws and increase the protection of water for the environment.

It is important that environmental water is protected, so it can be used to support special environmental sites in the northern Basin such as the Narran Lakes, Macquarie Marshes and Gwydir Wetlands. This water also benefits fish, animals and plants that depend on healthy rivers to feed, nest and grow. The health of the system also underpins production, eco-tourism and community wellbeing

Queensland’s existing arrangements largely protect water for the environment. New mechanisms to protect that environmental water have been incorporated into accredited and fully operational Queensland water resource plans.

In NSW, interim measures to protect water for the environment have been operating since 2018 (such as temporary restrictions on access). These interim arrangements are being replaced by enduring arrangements for protection of water for the environment to be implemented through water resource plans.

Coordinating water for the environment

A Northern Basin Environmental Watering Group (NBEWG) was established in November 2019 and will provide an enduring forum to coordinate planning and delivery of water for the environment across the northern Basin. NBEWG comprises officials from MDBA, Commonwealth Environmental Water Office (CEWO), New South Wales and Queensland.

The NBEWG will build upon the success of the interim arrangements used between CEWO, NSW and Queensland to coordinate joint releases from the Border Rivers and Gwydir catchments to deliver environmental outcomes in the Barwon–Darling; the Northern Connectivity Event (April–June 2018) and the Northern Fish Flow (April–July 2019). These were the first such multi-catchment coordinated events in the northern Basin.

First Nations Initiatives

Water is vital to Aboriginal culture, spirituality, identity and wellbeing. Cultural flows in the northern Basin are water entitlements owned and managed by northern Basin First Nations.

Initiatives are underway to support cultural gatherings and the recreational use of rivers, including the announcement of a new weir to be built at Wilcannia, to be jointly funded by the New South Wales and Australian governments.

The Australian Government has committed $20 million over four years to support First Nations to plan and implement cultural water entitlements.

Social and economic initiatives

The Basin Plan is a substantial reform. This reform has impacted on some communities in the northern Basin who have experienced changes in population, economic activity and employment.

Projects are being developed to assist northern Basin communities who have experienced change as a result of the Basin Plan.

Local engagement facilitators will work closely with the Collarenebri, Dirranbandi, St George and Warren communities to identify opportunities to support them during this change.

Northern Basin Commissioner and Murray–Darling Basin Inspector General

An Independent Northern Basin Commissioner, Mick Keelty AO APM, was appointed in 2018 as an advocate for northern Basin communities, and to collate technical and scientific information to improve governments’ understanding of the river system in the northern Basin.

In August 2019, the Australian Government announced the creation of a Basin water resources overseer, an Inspector General for the Murray–Darling Basin. This appointment replaces the role of the Northern Basin Commissioner and will be held by Mick Keelty AO APM in the interim, until filled permanently.

Gwydir constraints project

One of the potential projects in the northern Basin is the removal of constraints in the Gwydir, to improve delivery of water for the environment to the Gwydir wetlands near Moree.

Initiatives may include changes to physical features such as crossings and bridges.

Project design and delivery will involve the local community, led by the New South Wales government.

Who does what?

  • The Queensland, New South Wales and Australian Government (MDBA, Commonwealth Environmental Water Office, Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment) are working together to implement toolkit measures.
  • Basin governments have agreed a new schedule to the Inter-governmental Agreement on Implementing Water Reform in the Murray–Darling Basin 2013, outlining how governments will cooperate to implement the toolkit measures.
  • Queensland and New South Wales are responsible for development and implementation of toolkit measure projects by 2024.
  • The MDBA will provide advice on all measures and will coordinate a framework for the prioritisation of toolkit measures developed by the states.
  • The Australian Government will provide funding for both toolkit and commitment package measures and the response to the Independent Panel review of the Menindee fish deaths.

For further details, view the Basin governments agreed work plan to implement toolkit measures that provides the latest summary of progress: Summary of Northern Basin toolkit measures status (June 2020).

Updated: 15 Sep 2020