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Published: 07 December 2020   •   Communiques

The Murray–Darling Basin Ministerial Council met on Friday 27 November 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 Mark Furner (Queensland), the Hon David Speirs (South Australia) the Hon Lisa Neville MP (Victoria) and Shane Rattenbury MLA (ACT).

Ministers noted water availability and the mixed picture in storage levels across the Basin. As of 11 November, northern Basin storages were 27% and southern Basin storages 69% capacity. There has been good winter and spring rainfall, leading to a positive turnaround in water availability, a good season for winter crops and strong planting for summer crops. While in a much better position than the same time last year, when northern Basin storages were on 7%, storages are still low and some parts of the northern Basin are still dry. The Bureau of Meteorology's outlook until February 2021 is for wetter than average conditions.

Basin Plan progress

Ministers were updated on the progress to implement the Australian Government's Murray–Darling Community Investment Package, announced on 4 September 2020. The package puts communities back at the heart of the Basin Plan and renews commitments to recover water through off-farm projects – instead of water buy-backs – so Basin Plan targets can be achieved in a way that best protects communities. Ministers reached agreement on the principles for further funding to Basin state governments for implementation.

Ministers noted the Australian Government has completed a stocktake of open channels that outlines where water savings in off-farm delivery systems are still possible. This work provides potential projects to help achieve water recovery that will count towards enhanced environmental outcomes by 2024. Other elements of the package, including the third round of the Murray–Darling Basin Economic Development Program and the Healthy Rivers Program, are on track to progress this year.

Ministers agreed that future six-monthly reporting on the status of socio-economic assessments for the Commonwealth's Water Efficiency Program would be more detailed, setting out what projects are, why they have been assessed as either meeting or not meeting the agreed criteria, and the results of community consultation.

Ministers discussed the challenges associated with delivering the Sustainable Diversion Limited Adjustment Mechanism (SDLAM) projects. These 'supply and constraints' projects offset water recovery targets by 605GL.  A proposed pathway forward was considered by Ministers, but agreement could not be reached on the need for flexibility around the 2024 statutory timeline to allow high risk projects to progress.

While the timeframes are challenging, the intent of the original commitment – securing a healthy working river – remains a priority for all governments. Ministers noted that implementation of supply and constraints projects provides river health outcomes while ensuring water entitlements for farmers are not reduced. Community engagement and support for these projects remains vitally important to all Basin governments.  

Basin community feedback

The Basin Community Committee (BCC) chair Phil Duncan asked Ministers to start a Basin-wide dialogue about climate change, including what a healthy working river system might look like into the future. The BCC, which brings a community perspective to the Basin, wants to build knowledge and understanding of the likely future climate across the Basin and urged Ministers to take the lead in encouraging adaption and transformation pathways for communities, economies and ecosystems.

Mr Duncan reflected upon the importance of creating and maintaining genuine connections and thanked the MDBA and Basin officials for initiating a regular joint meeting with the BCC. Their first meeting was held last month.

On-ground action and progress

The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, Jody Swirepik, provided an update on the outcomes achieved with environmental water from the top to the bottom of the Basin, including environmental water provided to the Narran Lakes to regenerate habitat for water birds, along with ten years of continuous flow through the fish ways into the Coorong. Ms Swirepik noted other recent successes including facilitating Murray cod spawning at Pooncarie, and outcomes for fish which will help the system recover from the devastating fish death events in 2018/19. Ms Swirepik noted that some challenges remain to get the best outcomes of water for the environment.

Delivery shortfall and the Barmah Choke

The Council heard from the Chair of the independent expert panel, Dr Jane Doolan, on the work underway to understand and manage shortfall risk for the River Murray system. Dr Doolan stressed the importance of Basin state governments developing a plan to manage a risk of delivery shortfall and highlighted the importance of this as the risk increases. The Council asked the independent expert panel to continue their work supporting Basin States in addressing the critical issue of deliverability.

The Council agreed to the principles developed by Victoria, NSW and South Australia to monitor the cumulative impact of applications for new or increased extractions in the Lower Murray region. This will include reporting on regulatory approvals for possible new or additional water extractions in the Lower Murray to be updated annually. This work along with the delivery risks paper and the work of the independent expert panel are important commitments in stepping out how the system operates and agreeing to collectively work on a solution to the significant challenge faced. This issue will be further progressed by the Council as a priority for 2021.

In conjunction with the panel, Basin states and the MDBA have developed a deliverability risks paper which outlines the range of issues surrounding shortfall risk. The paper will help to engage with stakeholders and community about this issue in early 2021.

Markets and trade

Ministers welcomed an update from Mick Keogh, Deputy Chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) on the progress and key considerations of the Murray-Darling Basin water markets inquiry. Mr Keogh reiterated the importance of transparency to improve confidence in market operations, and the need to ensure harmonisation of the information provided to market participants. The final report is due in February 2021.

Water information portal

Ministers discussed progress and next steps for the water information portal, which will provide increased transparency and accessibility for water users across the Basin. The project will be complementary to existing platforms and provide a Basin-wide view.

Other business

Ministers discussed the review of the Former COAG Councils and Ministerial Forums (the Conran Review) which recommended this Ministerial Council continue. The Council agreed to the recommendations made by the Conran review, including that Ministers should set and control the agenda, with a focus on smaller number of strategic priorities, and for non-controversial and routine matters to be delegated to officials. Ministers agreed to four priorities in 2021:

  • Supporting Basin communities through the Basin Communities Investment Package
  • Implementing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, including delivery of supply and constraints, efficiency and toolkit measures
  • Consider reform to the water market following the ACCC final report
  • Deliverability in the River Murray system.

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
  • Queensland Minister, Mark Furner: Daniel Lato, 0438 891 158
  • South Australian Minister, David Speirs: Ryan Smith, 0466 498 060
  • Victorian Minister, Lisa Neville:  : Nikki Mott, 0416 311 214 
  • Australian Capital Territory Minister, Shane Rattenbury: Jen Faerber, 0481 035 764

MDBA media: (02) 6279 0141

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