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Published: 09 November 2018   •   Opinion pieces

Those on the land know better than anyone that drought means tough decisions and many risks to be weighed up.

Drought also demands good risk management when it comes to managing our limited shared water resources to best meet the needs of all water entitlement holders, including both irrigators and the environment.

The outlook for water across the Murray–Darling Basin remains challenging.

Recent rain across NSW and Victoria has provided some limited improvement in soil moisture, but is by no means drought-breaking and has not resulted in any significant streamflows or improvements in dam water levels.

The dry and warmer conditions have also caused very high evaporation losses from the river system in the early part of the season.

The latest outlook from the Bureau of Meteorology is for ongoing dry conditions, and it is likely that El Nino conditions will develop before the end of the year.

We can expect warmer than average daytime temperatures to continue into 2019, with little likelihood of a reprieve from dry conditions in coming months.

In the Southern Murray Darling Basin the season is quite challenging.  Inflows to the Murray during October have been in the lowest 10 per cent of years on record.

As a result, water availability currently varies significantly in different parts of the system.

There is reasonable water availability in Victoria with allocations in the two main systems making steady improvement throughout the season.  The Victorian Murray high reliability allocation currently sits at 89 per cent while the Goulburn allocation is at 82 per cent.

In NSW, the Murray High Security allocation is at 97 per cent; however, the NSW Murray General Security allocation remains at zero.

There are two key reasons for this.

Firstly, what rain we have had has fallen mainly in the Victorian Alps.  Under long-established water sharing arrangements, water coming into the Murray from Victorian tributaries remains a Victorian resource.  This has seen water availability in Victoria continue to increase over the season while much lower flows into NSW tributaries has seen the NSW position improve much more slowly than Victoria’s.

Secondly, there are differing water allocation arrangements established by the States—which have meant that Victoria started this season with water allocations already available, due to their more conservative water allocation in the preceding year.

Given the dry conditions, MDBA river operators in conjunction with state water resource managers have been particularly conscious of operating the system as efficiently as possible, while ensuring we move water through the system so it is available and in the right place to meet demands over summer and into 2019.

Large transfers of water from Dartmouth Dam to Hume Dam have commenced and are likely to continue well into next year.  Dartmouth Dam is used as a drought reserve and is generally called on in the second year of low inflows.  That is the situation we are in now.

Similarly we are moving a significant volume from Lake Hume to Lake Victoria near the South Australian border.  Having water available in Lake Victoria is critical to meeting demands in South Australia, including to maintain the Lower Lakes later in the season.

Across the northern Basin conditions are even drier and more challenging.  In the Macquarie, for example, inflows over the past 14 months to the end of September have been only 26 per cent of the previous historic minimum for the corresponding period.

The MDBA has no role in managing the river system in the northern Basin, but NSW has implemented a number of drought contingency measures, including making block releases to supply entitlement in the Gwydir and Namoi, grouping water orders and considering early cessation of deliveries in the Border Rivers.

While the outlook for water availability is challenging, we are much better positioned to manage through dry times now as a result of the Basin Plan than we were through the Millenium drought.

The Basin Plan requires that water for critical human water needs is prioritised over all other water use.  The Plan also includes mechanisms that vary how water is shared between the States in extremely dry times, and which may be triggered if conditions continue to deteriorate significantly.

Water markets continue to develop and mature, enabling businesses to plan and manage their own water availability risks.

And the environment also has a share of the available water resource, meaning that the river system will continue to grow more resilient, and we can better manage the impacts of drought on our natural ecosystems—so that future generations can continue to benefit from a healthy, working Murray–Darling system.

Phillip Glyde, Chief Executive, Murray–Darling Basin Authority

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