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Published: 13 April 2018   •   Media release

The Murray–Darling Basin Authority recognises that reduced flows in the Lower-Darling are of significant concern to communities and landholders.

The main factor affecting flows south of the Menindee Lakes is the climate and rainfall in catchments to the north. Nearly all the water flowing through the lower Darling comes from the rivers of southern Queensland and northern New South Wales. Communities in the Lower-Darling know better than anyone how reliant their own catchment is on the weather to the north. They accept that.

What people are concerned about is the degree to which irrigation development and behaviour in the north is having an effect on downstream flows. They're justifiably concerned about how the operation of existing rules in the Barwon-Darling and the level of compliance with water take limits impacts them.

What are you doing to protect flows?

Last month the MDBA released two reports (a detailed analysis of ecological needs and an examination of hydrological history in the Barwon–Darling). The reports found that regular small in channel flows were critically important to the health of the Basin—but that, since 2000, there have been much longer periods of no to very low flows. As already noted, natural climate variability contributes to this change but our analysis suggests water extraction is also a contributing factor.

This work arose because we had heard concerns raised during the Northern Basin Review in 2016. Our recommendation to reduce the water recovery target in the northern Basin by 70GL was contingent on a 'toolkit' of measures which would have delivered better outcomes for the environment and communities than the Basin Plan's default target of 390 GL. This is because the original settings did not include a commitment to protect environmental flows.

The 'toolkit' of measures has since been endorsed by partner governments and is a significant and enduring reform that can deliver real outcomes in time. Work is progressing, for example, this month NSW released four discussion papers that provide paths forward to increase metering, improve transparency, protect environmental water and measure flood plain harvesting in the north. These papers contain a proposal to include the implementation of individual daily extraction limits and changing access rules for flows through the Barwon–Darling.

In parallel the MDBA is working with environmental water holders to establish priorities for the coordination of environmental flows and protection of low flows through the Barwon-Darling and Lower Darling to improve water quality and the environment.

What are you doing to improve compliance?

The MDBA particularly welcomes the proposed measures to improve compliance, including through a 'no meter no take policy'. This was recommended by the MDBA independent panel's review of compliance as well as by NSW's own compliance review undertaken by Ken Matthews. Work to improve compliance is happening across the Basin. All Basin ministers have endorsed the development of a Basin Compliance Compact where each jurisdiction will set out its plans to improve compliance and enforcement activities.

The MDBA has also been moving ahead—our Independent Assurance Committee (IAC) met for the first time on 16 March 2018.  The IAC's role is to provide expert advice on the MDBA's compliance program and to keep an external discipline on our work.  The IAC will release a public communique following each of its meetings, setting out its views on the MDBA's progress with its compliance program.

The government has provided extra resources to the MDBA's compliance activities, and we have established an Office of Compliance to administer this.  A range of activities are in train including development of a new compliance policy and annual work program, and our work with states on drafting a Basin Compliance Compact.  Within a few months we will commence our auditing program, and we have strengthened our arrangements for handling allegations of non-compliance that we receive. We have also increased transparency and accountability in the development and accreditation of Water Resource Plans. There is more work to do but we are on the right path.

We understand that none of this is happening quickly enough for those who live and work on the Lower Darling who want the improved flows the Basin Plan promises now. I urge people to remember that without the Basin Plan there is no mechanism to work through these complex issues and no way to achieve changes for the Lower Darling. 

How do you operate the Lakes and how will you in the future?

The MDBA is also aware of significant concern about the current and future operation of the Menindee Lakes and the effect on downstream flows.

We can call water from the Menindee Lakes in accordance with long-standing water sharing arrangements agreed between the States. The Lakes are now below 480 GL so the remaining water is reserved to meet local needs and the MDBA can no longer call on water to meet demands in the Murray until the Lakes rise above 640 GL. Under the agreement, River Murray users pay three quarters of the operation and maintenance costs of the Menindee Lakes, even when the Lakes are below 480 GL.

Water stored in Menindee Lakes is used in a number of ways. For example, the last major inflow event (between July and December 2016) delivered 1900 GL of inflows. Since then, the MDBA called 344 GL to supplement the Murray system. In the same period 851 GL was lost to seepage and evaporation while 142GL was provided as a base-flow for the Lower Darling, 244 GL to environmental water customers (to support fish spawning and improve water quality) and 54 GL to Lower Darling customers.

The proposed changes to the Menindee Lakes is a complex project and will evolve over time. NSW has assured us that there will be time for community involvement in its development. The Menindee Lakes' have Basin-scale significance for the support of fish populations and their recruitment, particularly Golden Perch. Our modelling has found that this project will continue to deliver reliable low flows for the lower Darling River. Potential infrastructure changes would also benefit fish by providing fish passage where existing structures inhibit fish movement.

What about now? What are you doing to help residents without water?

Currently Lower Darling residents are concerned with water quality and want clarity about what to expect in the short term. WaterNSW has published the Lower Darling Annual Operations Plan outlining how the Menindee Lakes System will be managed in the coming months. The plan includes a number of scenarios including a repeat of the lowest inflow sequence on record over the next two years. Should this scenario eventuate Broken Hill's water supply will be maintained until the pipeline comes on-line. Flows to the Lower Darling would also be maintained at low levels until at least December this year even if there is no flow in the intervening period. WaterNSW continues to monitor conditions and will adapt releases should conditions change.

The NSW Government is responsible when it comes to implementing private or on-farm water supply measures to address water quality. WaterNSW will consider whether an increased flushing flow could improve water quality in the Lower Darling and the potential impact this would have on security of supply if dry conditions continue. WaterNSW provides regular updates to Lower Darling water users about operation of the system.

ENDS

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