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Published: 13 February 2020   •   Communiques

The Murray–Darling Basin Authority held its first meeting for 2020 in Canberra on 11-12 February. In the wake of devastating fires, drought and flooding the Authority acknowledged the hardship many communities have experienced this summer and the difficult road to recovery ahead. Members welcomed the appointment of Hon Keith Pitt MP to the water portfolio. The MDBA has begun briefings with Minister Pitt on the work of the Authority and members look forward to supporting him in this important and challenging role.

The Authority discussed the impacts of the welcome rain that fell across the Basin in early February. It has provided a much-needed morale boost for rural and regional communities but unfortunately is not yet enough to break the drought. Typical of Basin weather, the rain was hit and miss in its coverage. The biggest falls were outside the Basin. Considerably more rain is needed to fill the soil profile across the Basin before we will see significant runoff into rivers and storages. The Bureau of Meteorology's assessment is that while drivers of drier-than-usual conditions are easing, above-average temperatures are likely to continue for the next few months at least.

There were good falls of 200mm in the upper Basin and some northern rivers have begun to flow for the first time in years, including the Moonie River in Queensland. It is however still too early to say how much water will make it into the storages or if rivers across the northern basin will reconnect. There are early signs some flows may reach Menindee Lakes.

The recent much needed rain has focused the community's attention on legal water take. Queensland and New South Wales have responsibility for allocating water to their entitlement holders consistent with their water management plans and protecting flows through the system. Members noted that Queensland's accredited water resource plans have provisions for limiting access to floodplain flows and New South Wales has largely embargoed take to allow these initial flows to travel through the system. The MDBA is using satellite imagery to follow these flows as part of its compliance responsibilities and if concerns emerge they will be conveyed to the states for urgent response.

Members were informed that bushfires have devastated parts of the Basin's high country including the Upper Murray catchment above Hume Dam. Heavy rain after bushfires inevitably mobilises ash and sediment into waterways, affecting water quality in ways that can to lead to fish deaths. So far, falls in the past week in the southern Basin have not been so intense as to cause major and widespread problems in the upper Murray although several streams have been affected by worsening water quality. The Authority acknowledged the on-ground role of state authorities in leading the response and clean-up. Members also noted the likely longer term impacts on water quality and yield in bushfire affected areas of the Basin.

The Authority was updated by Prof Rob Vertessy, Chair of ACSEES, on the progress of the independent review of the science of the Lower Lakes in South Australia. This work is being undertaken by the CSIRO – led by Dr Francis Chiew – and is on track to be released in the second quarter of 2020. The Authority restated the importance they attach to the independent review of the Lower Lakes to deliver an objective and evidence-based assessment, based on the best science available.

The Authority also discussed progress on research commissioned from the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology exploring a range of possible climate futures for the Murray-Darling Basin. Current climate projections show the Basin will experience lower inflows, higher temperatures and more extreme weather events. The Authority underscored the importance of the Basin Plan's vision of a healthy working Basin based on adaptive management in an uncertain future, and reaffirmed its commitment to a Plan grounded in world-leading science and research.

The Authority noted the increasing risks for timely delivery of some of the complex projects to adjust the sustainable diversion limit as part of the Basin Plan. This program aims to manage water in more efficient ways and involve a range of projects which, if delivered in full, will reduce the amount of water recovery required under the Basin Plan by 605GL. The Authority considers that states, with the support of the MDBA, can still deliver these projects, however to do so will require a more vigorous and concerted effort over the next few years.

Authority members discussed with Head of River Management, Andrew Reynolds the challenges of running the River Murray in dry conditions. Moving large volumes of water through the system to meet summer irrigation demands has unwanted impacts on the natural environment. Balancing these competing priorities has been very difficult this year, particularly for delivery of intervalley trade from the Goulburn River. Sustained higher flows in the Goulburn through summer are needed to meet irrigation orders reliant on water traded from the Goulburn to the Murray. However, higher flows exacerbate bank erosion and cooler water affects native fish breeding cycles. The Authority commended the MDBA's River Management team for its strong performance throughout a very difficult time and reiterated the need to continue to collaborate with states on arrangements that balance these risks appropriately.

The Authority is pleased that the regionalisation of the MDBA's workforce is on track. The MDBA has long been committed to strengthening its connections with regional communities and is currently expanding its regional footprint. There are already 38 staff working in regional areas of the Murray-Darlin Basin including Griffith, Mildura, Murray Bridge, Albury-Wodonga, Adelaide, Toowoomba and Goondiwindi. The MDBA plans to grow the number of regionally based staff to 103 by mid-2021 through staff relocations from Canberra and local recruitment. It is recruiting new staff to work in its Griffith, Mildura, Murray Bridge and Goondiwindi offices. The MDBA's increased regional presence will promote job creation and boost economic diversification in Australia's regions.

The Authority discussed the report from the new Chair of the Basin Community Committee, Mr Phil Duncan, noting ongoing concerns from committee members about the impacts of the drought on the health of communities and the river system. Mr Duncan emphasised the importance of partnerships across the Basin and building trust and transparency between communities and the MDBA.

The Authority discussed the progress on submission and assessment of water resource plans (WRPs). The remaining plans from Victoria and the ACT will be assessed for accreditation recommendations over coming weeks. Prior to his departure, Minister Littleproud wrote to New South Wales with a proposed approach to secure the delivery of the state's 20 WRPs which were due by 31 December 2019. The Authority recognises the importance of appropriate consultation on these key water management instruments and looks forward to seeing submissions from New South Wales.

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