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Published: 11 September 2019   •   Communiques

The Murray–Darling Basin Authority met on 10 and 11 September 2019 in Canberra against the backdrop of worsening drought in the Basin, with the Bureau of Meteorology advising that winter this year had been the driest since 1982 and the fourth driest on record. These conditions are reflected in extremely low storage levels in the northern Basin and low inflows continuing in the southern Basin.

The Authority held a joint session with the Basin Community Committee, and focused on the impact of the worsening drought on the communities of the Basin. The Authority explored the opportunities available for communities over the next few months to provide feedback to government on ways to help alleviate this crisis, including through active engagement with the Independent Social and Economic Assessment Panel.

In a briefing to the Authority, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, Ms Jody Swirepik, outlined plans to use their limited water strategically through the drought, particularly to sustain aquatic refuges and to protect key environmental sites. Ms Swirepik noted that in the northern Basin there are no significant allocations for environmental water, as is the case for many other entitlement holders, and this means that until there is significant rainfall they will be limited to operating in the southern Basin.

An update on the operations of the River Murray system provided an overview of continuing low inflows and the MDBA's role in managing the available water as efficiently as possible while meeting the water sharing arrangements of the Basin states. The environmental water holders are currently using some of their available allocations for the Barmah–Millewa Forest and irrigators further downstream continue to order their water. The delivery of these orders, together with transfers of water to Lake Victoria ahead of summer, is contributing to the relatively high river levels currently in the Mid-Murray.

The Authority noted the latest report by the NSW Natural Resources Commission on the Barwon-Darling Water Sharing Plan, and the focus on the need to implement policy reforms to effectively manage water flows and protect environmental water and connectivity in the northern Basin, particularly during periods of low flow. The MDBA noted the commitment of the New South Wales Government to the protection of low flows and environmental water as part of the Northern Basin Toolkit recently agreed by the Murray–Darling Basin Ministerial Council. 

The Authority reaffirmed its expectation that these critical reforms will be brought forward within the water resource plans that are to be submitted to the Authority by the end of the year. The Authority will not recommend water resource plans to the Minister for accreditation unless the commitments are fulfilled.

Members continued their consideration of water resource plans, in particular plans currently with the MDBA for assessment from Victoria, South Australia and the ACT. Through the assessment process, the MDBA is paying close attention to the Basin Plan requirements and will only recommend to the Minister if these requirements are met.

Members welcomed the Minister's accreditation of the South Australian Murray Region Plan in August, which now joins the Warrego–Paroo–Nebine as the second plan in operation. With deadlines looming for submission, members discussed the need for state government submission of robust plans for assessment. Members noted high quality documentation was essential for their timely completion, particularly in New South Wales which is responsible for the majority of the remaining plans. There are critical issues to be addressed in the plans, including updated baseline diversion limits, connectivity of water resources, incorporation of Northern Basin Toolkit measures, consultation with Traditional Owners and the protection of environmental water.

The Authority met with Cotton Australia, and noted their support for the Basin Plan and the importance of implementation in full. Some of the issues the cotton industry is currently facing were also discussed.

The Authority also met with the ACCC to discuss its inquiry into Murray–Darling Basin water markets. Members noted the previous work of the MDBA on water markets issues, including the MDBA audit of trade prices released in May 2019, which found that several steps were required by governments to improve the quality of price data and to increase market transparency and confidence. Accurate trade price reporting is essential to confidence in the water market and compliance with the Murray–Darling Basin Plan.

The next meeting of the Authority is scheduled for 1-2 October at Tailem Bend, South Australia.

ENDS

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