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Published: 14 July 2020   •   Opinion pieces

With the size, complexity and controversy of the reform to secure the future of the Murray–Darling river systems and their communities, I find it hard not to get caught up in the detail of the many pieces of work required to roll out the Basin Plan. Each of the Plan’s milestones contributes to the long-term reform that will ensure water is used sustainably.

This reform always has been—and must be—about achieving a healthy working Basin for the benefit of all Australians now and into the future.

Last month we marked a significant milestone in the world of water management in the Murray–Darling Basin, with the MDBA receiving the final nine water resource plans from the New South Wales Government.

Water resource plans are integral to the Basin Plan at a catchment level, by setting out the rules for how water is used, how much water will be available to the environment and how water quality standards can be met. They also provide transparency so we can all be confident that water is being managed properly and fairly.

Particularly significant is the fact that for the first time we have a pathway to bring floodplain harvesting—the practice of capturing and storing water that flows across the floodplain—into the regulated system in NSW. This means the NSW Natural Resource Access Regulator will be better able to control that use and we can ensure it stays within the limits set in the Basin Plan.

When the Basin Plan was established, we had a good understanding of how much water needed to remain in the rivers to improve the health of our environment, but governments knew the accounting for some types of water use had to improve. It hadn’t been possible to accurately measure how much floodplain water was collected and used, and it could therefore not be monitored in the same rigorous way as other diversions have been, such as directly pumping from rivers.

New South Wales, like Queensland, has been working hard to better understand how much water was taken from the floodplains before the Basin Plan and how much is taken in present times. Accounting for this water is the first step to enable governments to transparently monitor water use to ensure overall limits are not exceeded. This will happen by way of a licencing framework in NSW from 1 July 2021, which will prevent any further growth in this form of use and make it possible for floodplain harvesting to be wound back where necessary.

Ultimately, this means we will be able to better achieve a healthier environment, and that’s a definite win for the rivers of the northern Basin and everyone who depends on them.

Our role now at the Murray–Darling Basin Authority is to thoroughly assess all of NSW’s 20 local plans to ensure their consistency with the Basin Plan, using a clear process set out in the Water Act 2007 so that the plans pass all legal tests—in the same way we assessed the plans from Queensland, South Australia, Victoria and the ACT. These governments now have accredited water resource plans in place and the Basin Plan is in legal operation in these jurisdictions.

This assessment task will be no small feat, with considerable work required over the next six months to thoroughly evaluate each plan and prepare a robust recommendation for the Water Minister in line with the 55 statutory Basin Plan requirements.

We’re heartened by the progress to date. The NSW Government is to be congratulated for hitting this critical milestone as collectively all governments and the MDBA move forward to achieve a healthy river system that will provide food and fibre for generations to come.

ENDS

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