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Published: 30 August 2021   •   Communiques

The Murray–Darling Basin Authority met on 30 August 2021 by video teleconference. The meeting was chaired by Sir Angus Houston with all members present. Andrew Reynolds attended as Acting Chief Executive while Phillip Glyde is on extended leave.

Authority members had a constructive conversation with Jim Bentley, the New South Wales member of the Basin Officials Committee, across a range of issues related to Basin Plan implementation, including water resource planning. Updates were also provided by Deputy Secretary Lyn O'Connell and First Assistant Secretary Rachel Connell of the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment and the Acting Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, Hilton Taylor.

Acting Chief Executive Andrew Reynolds gave a briefing about current water availability in the Basin. As of 23 August, water held in major Basin storages was 81 percent capacity across the northern and southern Basin.

Despite a wetter than average forecast by the Bureau of Meteorology, conditions were drier than expected in the early part of August. Soil moisture in upper Murray catchments continued to dry, down from 74 percent at the start of the month to 58 per cent now. Modest inflows have continued, and the Hume Dam volume is now at 94 percent, a level that is likely to see it fill with further rain.

The MDBA is mindful of concerns about localised flooding and is keeping the local community between Hume Dam and Yarrawonga up to date on the Bureau's forecast, anticipated inflows to the dam and any water releases. The MDBA remains focused on keeping the dam safe, capturing flows and where possible mitigating flooding.

Meanwhile, the Menindee Lakes are expected to fill in coming months for the first time since 2012. According to WaterNSW, 700 gigalitres of water is flowing through the Barwon-Darling and is anticipated to enter the lakes following widespread rain in the northern Basin. The lakes are currently 87 percent full.

Today the Authority released the mid-year report card on the Basin Plan. This is the sixth report card produced by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and responds to community feedback seeking short and succinct updates on water reform progress. It considers seven key elements of the Basin Plan including water resource plans, water recovery, Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism (SDLAM) supply and constraints, SDLAM efficiency measures, northern Basin initiatives, compliance and environmental water. The latest report card reflects the renewed effort to progress SDLAM supply and constraints measures, particularly the New South Wales government's commitment to engage and work with communities to build their support for these water saving projects.

The last of the 20 water resource plans (WRPs) submitted by New South Wales have been assessed by the MDBA and have been found to be inconsistent with the Basin Plan. New South Wales has now withdrawn 17 WRPs for which the Authority has previously issued notices highlighting inconsistencies with the Basin Plan. The MDBA continues to maintain a strong and collaborative working relationship with New South Wales officials on finalisation of the plans for resubmission. The Authority reiterated their commitment to seeing these plans completed and in place as soon as practicable.

The Authority welcomed the Australian Government's $3m investment to explore options to optimise the management of the Barmah Choke and reduce the risk of delivery shortfall in the Murray River. The MDBA will coordinate and lead this feasibility study on behalf of Basin state governments.

As the MDBA's earlier investigative work has uncovered, the capacity of the Barmah Choke has been diminishing for some time now due to the accumulation of sand from upstream. There is an estimated 20 million cubic metres of sand on the riverbed between Yarrawonga and Picnic Point, with 250,000 cubic metres of sand being transported into the Barmah Millewa reach each year.

Capacity through the choke is particularly important for running the river efficiently to meet both consumptive and environmental needs downstream. With less water able to flow through the choke, there is a higher risk of shortfalls, whereby water can't be delivered where it's needed, when it's needed. On behalf of Basin state governments, the MDBA has been undertaking extensive community consultation on these shortfall and capacity issues and is looking to incorporate this feedback as part of the feasibility study.

The Authority acknowledged the real and growing concern regarding erosion of the riverbanks. The feasibility study will also explore options to manage flows differently to reduce erosion. It will seek to identify ways to vary flows in the river over the season and run flows through the Barmah Choke at a lower level, particularly in summer. The Authority stressed that the study will not change the current water trading rules which limit the amount of water that can be traded downstream of the Choke.

The Authority approved the structure and process for the preparation of two key reports that provide transparency around progress of the Basin Plan – the annual Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism (SDLAM) Assurance Report and First Nations Peoples Participation in Environmental Watering Report. Both reports are due to be finalised before the end of December 2021.

The MDBA plays a key role in monitoring the integrity of sustainable diversion limits and the operation of the SDLAM. The emphasis of this year's annual SDLAM assurance report will be on the extent to which the projects being reviewed are expected to meet the anticipated environmental benefits.

The First Nations Peoples Participation in Environmental Watering Report is part of the work of government agencies to improve engagement and reporting on First Nations' involvement in Murray–Darling Basin environmental water management. It reflects the reality that water is an important part of First Nations' communities, culture and livelihoods.

Sir Angus Houston (Chair)
Professor Stuart Bunn
Ms Joanna Hewitt AO
Ms Susan Madden
Mr Rene Woods
Andrew Reynolds (acting Chief Executive)

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