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Published: 06 February 2019   •   Communiques

The Murray–Darling Basin Authority met on 4 and 5 February 2019 in Canberra to continue its extensive work program to roll out the Murray–Darling Basin Plan.

The meeting took place against a backdrop of continuing drought conditions, low inflows and record January heat across the Basin. Members expressed concern about the pressure these factors placed on communities and the environment. In the six months to December 2018, inflows to the River Murray system were within the lowest 10% on record. Total water storage across NSW is about 37% compared with 62% this time last year. Both the Macquarie and Namoi valleys entered new record-low inflow periods, with the Namoi's Keepit Dam currently effectively empty.

The Authority noted the climate outlook issued by the Bureau of Meteorology on 17 January 2019 indicated continued dry conditions across much of the Basin. Wide-spread blue-green algae along the River Murray remains a risk as increased water temperatures combine with slow moving water, and red alerts are current for Mildura to Lock 9. The MDBA continues to work with state authorities and the Regional Algal Co-ordinating Council to manage the risks.

The MDBA discussed its climate change work program, highlighting the importance of plans to engage more broadly with the climate science community and to deepen partnerships with the CSIRO and BoM. While the Basin Plan has built-in mechanisms to account for the reality of climate change, this will further build the MDBA's capacity and capability to assess and respond to climate change risks to the Basin's water resources.

Authority members considered the findings of the South Australian Murray–Darling Basin Royal Commission, released on 31 January 2019. Members rejected the Commission's findings that the MDBA had been negligent or had acted improperly or unlawfully. The Authority reiterated its full confidence in Chief Executive Phillip Glyde and offered its full public support for his leadership of the MDBA and stewardship of the Basin Plan.

Authority members noted the CSIRO's statement categorically refuting that it was pressured to change a report in an improper and misleading way by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.CSIROalso reiterated its use of rigorous processes to ensure the quality of its science used for this work. The Authority is preparing a response to the findings of the Commission in the coming weeks. 

The stress placed on communities and the river system due to the ongoing drought, was discussed by the Authority, including the devastating fish deaths in several parts of the Basin during January. The Authority noted with concern that further fish deaths are likely to occur in the river system when severe water quality issues arise. Authority members emphasised the importance of addressing these issues in the implementation of the Basin Plan to reduce the likelihood of similar events.

The Authority recommitted to providing full support to the review into fish deaths by the Independent Panel, led by Professor Rob Vertessy, appointed by the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources. The panel is exploring the causes behind the Lower Darling fish deaths and will recommend measures to reduce the likelihood of repeat events. It is due to report preliminary findings in late February and deliver its final report at the end of March. The Authority noted that the MDBA staff had also provided detailed similar briefing to the review led by the Australian Academy of Science.

The Authority also welcomed the Australian Government's announcement of the $5 million Native Fish Management and Recovery Strategy, and commended the cooperative approach of the MDBA and state and Commonwealth parties to develop a way forward to improve monitoring and evaluation of the Basin's native fish populations.

The recommendations of the Productivity Commission's five-year review of the Basin Plan were noted, and Authority members welcomed the critical importance that the Productivity Commission placed on delivery of the Plan for the future health of the river system, communities and industries. It was agreed that the review was an important opportunity to examine what is working well and where improvements could be made.

Authority members were briefed on the MDBA and state agencies' joint work to manage potential water delivery shortfall risks over summer. They noted the immediate risk of a delivery shortfall is currently low, given the relatively high regulated flows through the mid-Murray. However, ongoing dry conditions could increase the risk of a shortfall as Lake Victoria storage levels decline. Water managers are closely monitoring demands and forecast weather conditions, and regularly re-evaluating operations to manage the risks.

A large part of the Authority meeting was devoted to progressing water resource plans in accordance with the Basin Plan. The draft assessment report and recommendation for the proposed water resource plan for the South Australian Murray Region was considered by Authority members and recommended to the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources for accreditation. Authority members also noted and discussed several water resource plans nearing completion in Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and the ACT.

The Authority also welcomed progress by the New South Wales and Queensland governments in implementing the associated Northern Basin Toolkit commitments. As part of its Water Resource Plan work program, the Authority has resolved that prior to making a recommendation to the Minister to accredit Water Resource Plans the Authority will need to be satisfied that Basin Plan commitments are met.

The Authority agreed that the state government requests to re-allocate the shared reduction to the surface water sustainable diversion limits met the requirements of the Basin Plan. This was the final opportunity for re-distribution and the updated shared reduction amounts will be published on the MDBA website.

The Authority was briefed on progress to heighten compliance and enforcement activities by the MDBA and each Basin jurisdiction, including trade audits, state-based compliance commitments and improved rate of water metering. The Authority noted progress with the Water Trade Price Reporting Audit which raised concerns about market transparency with many trades reported in state registries as having zero value. The Authority noted that the report would be publicly released on completion in the coming weeks.  

The Authority welcomed the former Chairman and Chief Executive of the National Water Commission, Mr Ken Matthews AO, who completed the independent review of New South Wales' Water Management and Compliance in 2017. Authority members discussed with Mr Matthews the challenges facing the Basin Plan and welcomed Mr Matthews' insights to improve implementation.

The meeting marked the completion of the official four year term of The Hon Neil Andrew AO as Chair of the MDBA. Authority member Joanna Hewitt AO has been appointed acting Chair until a permanent appointment is announced by the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources.

Mr Andrew, who attended the meeting as an observer, has shown great leadership, perseverance and energy over four challenging and rewarding years at the helm of the Authority. The Authority thanked Mr Andrew for his deep commitment to the water reform challenge and acknowledged his exceptional ability to engage with people and interests across the Basin. Achievements in salinity management are due in no small part to Mr Andrew's focus on long-term water quality standards. The Northern Basin Review, the Sustainable Diversion Limit adjustment mechanism and the compliance review have all been completed under Mr Andrews' tenure.

Mr Andrew thanked the Authority and staff for their hard work and professionalism over the past four years. He highlighted the challenges of this complex reform and urged current Authority members to continue their commitment to transparency and community consultation.

The next meeting of the Authority is scheduled for 12 March 2019 in Melbourne.


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