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Published: 14 November 2019   •   Communiques

The Murray–Darling Basin Authority met on 13 November 2019. The ongoing drought and now catastrophic bushfires in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland were front of mind for all members, who expressed their concerns for affected communities. While rain in early November provided a reprieve for some communities and parts of the river system, the Bureau of Meteorology forecasts indicate dry conditions are likely to continue for the next three months.

Members welcomed the cooperative approach to drought management between governments in the Basin. They noted the commitment of the Australian and the South Australian governments to increase the output of Adelaide’s desalination facility to make more water available to eligible farmers in the River Murray system.

The Authority reiterated the importance of Basin governments’ continuing commitment to implement the Basin Plan for the long-term health of the river system. Drought makes it much more difficult to persist with this major reform. It involves hard decisions by governments to limit water extraction and strengthen water sharing to secure the future interests of the community and irrigation industry as well as key environmental assets. Communities are facing challenging times and will continue to need support to adapt to new water management arrangements.

The Authority agreed that climate change is a serious issue for Australia and for all those reliant on the water of the Basin. Members were briefed on the MDBA’s accelerated effort to fast track climate research and analysis. It was noted that the MDBA was working with CSIRO to undertake analysis for three climate scenarios for 2020, 2050 and 2070. The scenarios will provide information on possible water availability that can help water users and managers.

An update on current River Murray operations was provided to members. Storage levels in the Murray system are about half of the long-term average for this time of year and starting to decline as irrigation demands increase. Given the dryness of catchments recent rainfall generated only small streamflow rises which quickly receded. They noted that New South Wales has prudently started to set water aside for the next water year to ensure water is available for carryover and high priority needs.

Authority members were delighted to announce the appointment of Mr Phil Duncan to the position of Chair of the Basin Community Committee from 1 January 2020. Mr Duncan is a Gomeroi man from Moree in New South Wales and has more than 35 years’ experience working on water policy and environmental matters with governments, the university sector and Aboriginal organisations. The Authority noted the significance of Mr Duncan’s appointment as the first Aboriginal person to hold the position of Basin Community Committee Chair, and looked forward to a highly collaborative and productive relationship over the next three years.

Members expressed their gratitude to the outgoing Basin Community Committee Chair, Mr Rory Treweeke, whose outstanding contribution over the past 10 years as a committee member and chair has ensured Basin community perspectives were at the forefront of consideration by the Authority and Basin governments during crucial aspects of Basin Plan development.

An overview of the work underway by the independent Advisory Committee on Social, Economic and Environmental Sciences was provided by the Chair, Professor Rob Vertessy. The current focus of their work includes helping the MDBA to shape a program of required work on climate change and adaptation, providing information and advice to effectively evaluate the Basin Plan. The Committee is also conducting a science investigation into the current and historical nature of hydrology in the Lower Lakes of South Australia.

Members were updated on the seven-year process of transitioning water take compliance from a cap‐based system to the Basin Plan’s system of sustainable diversion limits. The 2018–19 year was the last in the transition period, with compliance against the new limits starting from 1 July 2019.

A healthy working Basin is one that sees irrigators and environmental entitlement holders using their available water to optimise outcomes. Members noted that cap and transitional take reporting has shown a trend in underutilisation but that it is up to individuals to decide when and how to use their allocations according to their business needs, which is increasingly challenging when water allocations are so low. Members reiterated that the Basin Plan provides for the allocation and use of that water up to the sustainable diversion limit in each catchment.

The MDBA Office of Compliance reported that good progress was being made by state governments against their Compliance Compact commitments. The Authority heard that metering audits by the MDBA have been underway in the Sunraysia and Riverland districts, following a similar successful audit in the lower Murrumbidgee.

Members encouraged the Office of Compliance to continue working with state governments to improve their agencies’ level of transparency by overcoming delays in releasing information in the public interest including compliance frameworks, metering policies and plans, and hydrometric network reviews.

The Authority discussed the release and approach used for the Monitoring first flush flows in the Namoi, Macquarie and Warrego River publication released in October. They noted that satellite images alone are not evidence of illegal activity, but reaffirmed their value for monitoring purposes and our continuing commitment to transparency. The Authority noted the Inspector General’s investigation into the report and the circumstances of its release. The Authority is committed to learning and improving its compliance approach and looks forward to any recommendations the Inspector General may make.

Progress towards completing the assessment and submission of proposed water resource plans was discussed at length. The Authority was updated on the final stages of work required to progress the ACT, Goulburn–Murray, Victorian Murray and Northern Victoria water resource plans before they can be recommended for accreditation by the Minister.

The Authority noted that the New South Wales Government has done an enormous amount of work to prepare its required 20 water resource plans and encouraged Minister Pavey to complete the plans for assessment by the MDBA by the end of the year. Timely assessment will pose a challenge for the MDBA if they are to be accredited by Minister Littleproud by 30 June 2020, but the Authority is committed to doing all it can to meet deadlines. The plans’ delivery rely on New South Wales submitting high quality documentation that is supported by appropriate consultation with stakeholders including Traditional Owners.

The Authority were encouraged by the update provided on decentralising the MDBA’s operations. Over the last couple of months significant progress has been made. Recruitment processes have started and office locations identified. Over the coming months the MDBA needs to initiate stronger and broader relationships with key organisations and leaders in the new office locations – Goondiwindi, Griffith, Mildura and Murray Bridge.

ENDS

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