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Published: 04 April 2019   •   Communiques

At its meeting on 2-3 April 2019 in Canberra, the Murray–Darling Basin Authority reinforced its commitment to collaboration on the Basin Plan. The Authority noted with concern reports of growing tensions about water issues including at times disrespectful behaviour and even bullying of individuals within some Basin communities. They stressed the importance of sustaining respectful dialogue noting all want the best outcome for their communities and all voices need to be heard.

With water storages in the Basin sitting at 30 per cent capacity, Authority members committed to regular communication with Basin communities in the approach to the new water year and to working closely with jurisdictions to monitor water usage and manage reserves with care. The north of the Basin has very little water compared with the southern Basin but next water year will be heavily reliant on good inflows over winter and spring. The current demand for water in the River Murray system is easing, allowing the focus to return to the conservation of water as dry conditions persist. The Authority noted the publication of the MDBA's assessment of 2018-19 conveyance losses which were experienced largely in the course of delivering allocations to communities and agricultural businesses.

The Authority was briefed extensively on state government progress on submitting water resource plans for assessment by the MDBA. They considered in detail the draft plans for the NSW Border Rivers, Lachlan, Murrumbidgee, Gwydir and the Macquarie–Castlereagh catchments in New South Wales. Members noted publication of the March quarterly progress report, and highlighted the need for all states to sustain their high level of effort to meet this year's deadline for finalisation of all water resources plans.

Members were briefed on the MDBA's work with the states to ensure structured and culturally appropriate consultation with Traditional Owners in the course of developing water resource plans. They stressed the importance of jurisdictions setting aside sufficient time for Traditional Owners to consider each plan fully and in accordance with the intent of the Basin Plan. The MDBA is providing additional resources to facilitate consultation and ensure proper regard is given to Aboriginal water management objectives.

The Authority also emphasised the need for state governments to meet their commitment to protect environmental water as a measure that complements implementation of the water resource plans. Members welcomed the briefing by state officials about the Victorian framework for protection of water for the environment. Discussions are continuing about how to reflect the framework appropriately in the Victorian water resource plans.

The Authority also welcomed the opportunity to discuss the process of bringing floodplain harvesting into water use accounting by state governments, with New South Wales officials providing details about the state's progress to date, including measures to monitor compliance with Basin Plan requirements. The Authority stressed the importance of community confidence that the water resource plans accurately reflect the limits to floodplain harvesting and that those limits are complied with. The Authority also noted the strong cooperation between the MDBA, New South Wales and Queensland officials on progressing these important and challenging issues.

Professor Rob Vertessy, chair of ACSEES, reported to Authority members on the Independent Assessment of the 2018-19 fish deaths in the Lower Darling.  The final report was provided to the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources at the end of March. Professor Vertessy also outlined the panel's plans to travel to Menindee after the report's release to discuss the findings and recommendations with the community. The Authority received a briefing on the key findings and recommendations and noted the minister's intention to issue the report publicly.

The extensive level of consultation and engagement in water discussions at the community level by members of the Basin Community Committee (BCC) was greatly appreciated by Authority members. The BCC chair, Mr Rory Treweeke, noted the strength of commitment to gathering and reflecting local perspectives, which Authority members agreed was of critical importance during challenging times of low water availability.

The Authority welcomed a presentation by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, with Ms Jody Swirepik highlighting some of the recent benefits of water for the environment. This includes supporting the successful re-introduction of the threatened Murray hardyhead to Little Frenchman's Creek in NSW, and providing nursery habitat in the Murray estuary for juvenile Black bream that spawned in summer 2018 and continue to thrive. Environmental water was also successfully used over summer to reduce the risk of further fish deaths in the lower Murrumbidgee River.

The Authority noted the challenges with delivering water to the environment this year, which resulted in key needs in the River Murray and Coorong not being met. This is likely to pose a risk to achieving outcomes again in future years.

The Authority was updated about the progress in assessing the implementation of Prerequisite Policy Measures which account for environmental water more effectively and ensure it can be used more effectively. Basin states need to ensure Prerequisite Policy Measures are in place by 30 June 2019. The MDBA is assessing state progress in implementing the measures and will publish a report documenting the findings and outlining the ongoing work program to continue to improve environmental water management.

An update was provided on the 2017-18 trial report into compliance with the sustainable diversion limits (SDLs) using the new SDL accounting framework for the Basin Plan. There is a progressive shift towards the new framework in preparation for the 2019-20 water year when the SDLs become enforceable. The Authority was briefed on the independent review that is assessing the framework's robustness against internationally recognised criteria as well as criteria best suited to Murray–Darling Basin conditions. The Authority welcomed the assurance to be provided by the review that SDL accounting used by the MDBA would be a credible and transparent process, and emphasised the need for Basin states to maintain open lines of communication with their stakeholders.

An update was provided to the Authority on MDBA commitments to boost compliance in the Basin, including the imminent publication of the Water Trade Price Reporting Audit report. Members were advised that there are currently no formal investigations underway by the MDBA, however there are 17 active cases that have been referred by the MDBA to Basin state agencies for further investigation, eight of which are in New South Wales, six in Queensland and three in Victoria. More information about compliance is available on MDBA website.

The Authority also welcomed the recent recruitment of an MDBA regional engagement officer, Richard Unsworth, in the Menindee–Lower Darling region of New South Wales. The appointment will be an important point of contact for local people at an area that has been heavily affected by the drought and by the fish deaths during the summer months.

The next meeting of the Authority is scheduled for 7-8 May 2019.  

ENDS

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