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Published: 23 June 2020   •   Communiques

The Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council met on Friday 19 June via video conference to progress actions to build a strong and sustainable Basin. The Ministerial Council is chaired by the Hon Keith Pitt MP (Commonwealth). Other members attending were the Hon Melinda Pavey (NSW), the Hon Lisa Neville MP (Victoria), the Hon David Speirs (South Australia), the Hon Dr Anthony Lynham (Queensland) and Mr Mick Gentleman MLA (ACT).

Water availability

Ministers welcomed the early autumn rains and the Bureau of Meteorology's forecast of a wetter and cooler than average winter. As a result, winter crop production is expected to rebound this year. Commodity forecaster ABARES estimates a 23 per cent increase in area planted and a national harvest of 44.5 million tonnes, 11 per cent above the 10-year average.

It's a significant shift when considering the extreme weather conditions facing Australians when the Council last met in December 2019 with drought, bushfires and soaring temperatures taking their toll on the Basin. They noted the cumulative effects of these events and now the unprecedented and wide-reaching impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Because of the autumn rain, catchments are wet and there have been some good inflows into storages. River Murray system inflows in May were the highest they've been for May since 1989. However, because of the record-dry times of 2017-19, dam levels are still well below average with northern storages at 17 per cent and southern storages at 44 per cent as of 10 June. Continued above-average rainfall is needed to vastly improve the water availability outlook for water users.

Ministers noted that there is still a significant water shortage in the Basin, with large parts still affected by drought. Ministers agreed the road to recovery is long, but with a positive forecast this season it is hoped that storages can begin to re-fill and allocations can eventually improve.

Most of the recent rain has fallen downstream of Lake Hume and is being captured in Lake Victoria – the last storage in the system. Minimal releases are being made from Hume Dam as all downstream demands are being met by tributary inflows. This will maximise the amount of water captured for use next irrigation year.

The MDBA agreed to incorporate Victoria's request to limit Goulburn inter-valley trade deliveries to 40 gigalitres per month for summer into their operational planning for next year.

On-ground action and progress

Rain in the northern Basin made water available against several of the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder's (CEWH) licences, helping to reconnect the north's waterways. The CEWH reported on good outcomes observed from last year's spring flow in the Murray.

Ministers heard from the chair of the Basin Community Committee, Mr Phil Duncan. Mr Duncan spoke about some of the challenges facing Basin communities that have been further exacerbated by COVID-19. Mr Duncan urged Basin governments to use the committee more readily to involve communities in decision making and projects at a local level.

COVID-19 is having a range of impacts across the Basin. It has affected consultation on key projects and delayed the release of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's interim report on Murray–Darling Basin water markets.

Ministers discussed the implementation of the Basin Plan. Ministers reconfirmed their commitment that Basin governments will continue to assess efficiency measures against the socio-economic criteria process agreed at the December 2018 Council meeting.

In addition, to ensure transparency, Ministers agreed that governments will report to Ministerial Council every six months on the outcomes of the assessment processes undertaken for each jurisdiction and those reports will be made publicly available.

Ministers noted potential opportunities that investment in regional off-farm projects provide, particularly as part of the post COVID-19 stimulus response, delivering an economic boost to the regions through job creation and agricultural productivity as well as Basin Plan environmental outcomes. They requested that Basin officials investigate and identify potential opportunities to invest in off-farm projects as a matter of priority.

Ministers discussed the need to finalise a National Partnership Agreement (NPA) for supply and constraint measures. Basin officials were requested to bring back to the next meeting recommendations to resolve the outstanding issues for the NPA.

Ministers had a robust discussion regarding the challenging legislated timeframes for delivery of the 36 projects under the SDL Adjustment Mechanism and the need for meaningful community consultation, as noted in the Productivity Commission review and several subsequent reports. Ministers Pavey and Neville requested consideration of a new legislative timeframe however this request was not supported by the Ministerial Council. Ministers agreed that the NPA will include a disciplined process for reviewing and amending project timeframes.

Ministers were briefed by Greg Wilson, chair of the New South Wales and Victorian Ministers' Independent Expert Panel on constraints modelling. They asked the MDBA to prioritise climate change scenario modelling on the future frequency, nature and extent of inundation, including planned environmental flows and unplanned flows, for the River Murray.

Delivery shortfall and the Barmah Choke

Ministers heard from Dr Jane Doolan, chair of the independent panel on capacity delivery shortfall project in the River Murray. They requested the panel continue to work with officials and report back to their next meeting.

There was an extensive discussion on the impacts of irrigation development and the pressure this adds to delivery shortfall for all water users. New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia will work together to assess the cumulative impacts of new and increased extractions and developments, against an agreed set of principles. This is in addition to the steps Victoria and South Australia have already taken to consider any new development proposals centrally and include potential cumulative impacts on deliverability, and the environment and its considerations. It was also agreed that water users would be engaged so they better understand delivery risk.

Ministers agreed to commission a feasibility study to explore the options to optimise the capacity of Barmah Choke and to reduce the risk of delivery shortfall in the Murray River. The Barmah Choke is a narrow section of the River Murray that runs through the Barmah-Millewa Forest.

The risk of being unable to meet demand downstream of the Barmah Choke is real and increasing due to several factors, including a 20 per cent reduction in river channel capacity over the past 20 years. It impacts irrigators, regional communities and the environment.

The feasibility study is one part of a broader suite of work across the river system to address water delivery shortfall across the southern Basin, including the tributaries. It will build on similar reviews that have been undertaken in the past to find a cost-effective option which may be acceptable to communities.

Governments will work with stakeholders, including communities and water authorities to conduct the feasibility study over the next 18 months and will ensure it considers community support and concerns.

Transparency

The drought has shone a light on all aspects of water management in the Basin. Ministers discussed the community concerns surrounding transparency, data and the clear need for a single source of truth.

Ministers acknowledged the good work being done by governments to share information about water management and markets more readily, but agreed the effort needed to be strengthened and more coordinated. Ministers emphasised the importance of putting the user at the centre and ensuring their expectations and needs were met.

Ministers agreed to work collectively to share information and develop a single-source information portal for the Murray–Darling Basin. They agreed that Basin officials will work together to provide a framework for consideration at the next Council meeting.

Members discussed the “first flush” reviews being undertaken following the early autumn rains in the northern Basin and the importance of this work. New South Wales has invited Victoria and South Australia to participate in its 2020 Northern Basin First Flush Assessment. Queensland has agreed to engage the southern states in its Flow Event Reports, which Queensland has already committed to under its accredited Water Resource Plans. Queensland's Flow Event Reports are made public under requirements in the Queensland Water Act. New South Wales has agreed to publicly release its review. This information will provide communities with increased confidence in first flush arrangements.

Other business

Ministers noted the Lower Lakes review, the stocktake of open channels and the progress of the Northern Basin Toolkit measures and Water Resource Plans. They approved the Joint Programs work plan for 2020-2021 to 2023-2024 and budget.

Ministers endorsed the new Native Fish Recovery Strategy, which provides guidance and practical actions that governments, communities and the private sector can take to strengthen the health of native fish.

Ministers noted Minister Pavey's request to have a discussion regarding a Commonwealth Royal Commission included on the agenda for this meeting. The matter was not considered. 

National Cabinet

Members noted the Prime Minister's plans to replace the Council of Australian Governments with a more streamlined structure which will ensure Australians get improved and more joined-up government at the state, territory and federal level. Ministers noted the legislated role of the MDB Ministerial Council and supported its continued role in the context of the new National Cabinet. They noted and reinforced the importance of water to communities, the environment, agriculture and job creation and that as a result, it should remain a key strategic item for consideration by First Ministers.

ENDS

Media contacts:

  • Commonwealth Minister for Water, Keith Pitt: Matt Dunstan 0411 535 072
  • New South Wales Minister, Melinda Pavey: Jessica Cole, 0448 722 437
  • Victorian Minister, Lisa Neville: Hannah Porter, 0418 377 715
  • South Australian Minister, David Speirs: Ryan Smith, 0466 498 060
  • Queensland Minister, Dr Anthony Lynham: Jan Martin, 0439 341 314 
  • Australian Capital Territory Minister, Mick Gentleman: James Webber, 0466 023 084

MDBA media: (02) 6279 0141

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