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Published: 08 January 2019   •   Opinion pieces

People in towns and cities across Australia see the impact of drought on television or Facebook from the comfort of their couches and empathise. However, for those living in the northern Murray–Darling Basin and along Australia's third longest river, the Darling River, drought is a harsh reality they are living every day. Towns like Wilcannia and Walgett are on bore water, and landholders with entitlements to pump water from northern rivers to sustain their stock and to use in their homes are faced with dry river beds.

For these families and communities drought means more than hand watering the garden and timing showers, it means making wholesale changes to how they live. They may be trucking water, hand feeding stock, and they may be driving to town to shower their children.

Of course, when there's not enough water in our rivers and dams to meet people's needs there is an impact on the environment as well. The recent fish deaths in the Lower Darling are an example of this, along with the numerous algal blooms in those stretches of the river that still have water.

People faced with the daily reality of drought are angry and disappointed in what they see as mismanagement of the system. They're looking to governments, and the Murray–Darling Basin Authority, to do more.

I recognise that people attribute much of the blame for the current dry conditions and low water availability on a range of factors like increased development, non-compliance upstream, as well as on the current river management rules. While these all play a role, the hard truth, as we continue through what is likely to remain a long hot summer, is that the northern Basin is in the grip of a prolonged drought with much of the region missing out on the heavy rains that were experienced along the coast.

Inflows to the Darling and its major tributaries from the north have also been well below average, and for some valleys, like the Namoi, inflows are the lowest on record. Storages across the northern Basin are at 20 per cent capacity. The Darling is dry above Menindee and below it.

As we get a better understanding of the likely effects of climate change on the Basin, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests we can expect more droughts in coming years and decades. Dry periods are getting longer and rainfall distribution is changing so that the cooler months are drier, giving catchments less opportunity to start the hotter months in good shape.

That is not to say that development upstream of Bourke, compliance with water take rules throughout the northern Basin and management of Menindee Lakes have no impact downstream. All people who rely on the rivers of the Basin for their livelihoods and wellness need to have confidence in the compliance regime. Historically this has not been the case. Big strides have been made in the past year especially in New South Wales with the establishment of the Natural Resource Access Regulator which has boots on the ground and two successful prosecutions under its belt.

However, while the Basin Plan has been painted by some as part of the problem, it is actually our best chance for achieving a sustainable and more resilient Darling River. It is not possible to drought-proof the Basin, but the Basin Plan can help us prepare for future droughts by holding water for the environment separate from water for irrigators, and increasing system health so it can recover from drought better and more quickly.

It sets a sustainable level of take for each catchment and it requires that water for critical human water needs is set aside before other uses—both these things will be documented in water resource plans that set the rules for water sharing in different catchments and will be in place in 2019. I recognise that meeting critical human water needs is not just about the volume of water but also the quality. In very dry times like these the quality of water can become more of an issue than availability. 

The Basin Plan also gives us a once in a generation opportunity to change the way the Menindee Lakes are managed. The Menindee Lakes project has multiple objectives two of which concern improving the reliability of low flows in the Lower Darling and supporting the critical role of the Menindee Lakes in native fish breeding. New South Wales is developing the project and has started consultation with communities. There is a long way to go in designing and delivering this project and community input will be critically important in getting the best out of it.

To realise the benefits the Basin Plan can deliver will take a clear demonstration of positive actions on the part of governments to regain the trust of communities who, for too long, have felt forgotten and let down by successive administrations. I recognise that inaction on compliance and a lack of meaningful engagement with communities have depleted the trust communities have in governments. However, there is much to gain and little to lose for communities in helping to implement this important water reform that had its genesis in the damage the millennium drought wrought. We learnt hard lessons about drought from those experiences and we will learn more from this drought.

Ultimately, those living and working through the reality of drought in the northern Basin and along the Darling want the same thing as I want, and the same thing that the Basin Plan will help deliver:  a healthy and sustainable river system. My hope is that we can re-establish the trust needed to work together to achieve that. Of course, it will take decades for this long-term reform to fully achieve its aims. That's a long time to ask those carting water to stay the course. However, I remain convinced that this is the best and only good way forward for us all.

ENDS

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