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Published: 14 December 2018   •   Communiques

The Murray–Darling Basin Ministerial Council met in Melbourne today to progress important elements of Murray–Darling Basin Plan implementation. The Ministerial Council is chaired by the Hon. David Littleproud MP (Commonwealth). Other members attending were the host the Hon. Lisa Neville MP (Victoria), the Hon. Niall Blair MLC (NSW), the Hon. David Speirs MP (South Australia) and Mr Mick Gentleman MLA (ACT). The Hon. Mark Furner MP (acting for the Hon. Dr Anthony Lynham, Queensland) attended by telephone.

Ministers welcomed the Northern Basin Commissioner and former Australian Federal Police Commissioner, Mr Mick Keelty, to the meeting to provide an update on compliance with water rules. Mr Keelty told Ministers that since his appointment on 23 August 2018 he had been working with local and state governments, the Queensland Crime and Corruption Commission as well as NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption and others to build his understanding of current northern Basin compliance. Four months into his three year tenure, he identified that investment in technology offers one of the greatest opportunities to improve water management in the Basin. He was optimistic of a growing compliance culture across the northern Basin greatly assisted by two recent successful prosecutions. He noted the importance of prospective Proceeds of Crime actions as a deterrent. He said much work remained to ensure appropriate metering, monitoring and measurement of water use. Ministers noted that Basin officials have work underway to consider Mr Keelty’s recommendations.

All Ministers noted the critical importance of community involvement in designing and implementing the Basin Plan and thanked the Basin Community Committee Chair, Rory Treweeke for his comprehensive report that provided a snapshot drawn from his committee’s 16 members. The committee members called for continued innovation and best practice engagement in Basin Plan implementation noting that all governments could learn from past approaches and improve coordination.

Ministers expressed concern for communities experiencing ongoing drought and continued dry conditions across much of the Basin. Ministers noted the possibility that a continuation of dry conditions could result in low water availability next year across all three states. All state governments are preparing for the continuation of dry conditions. Given this and the continued likelihood of a dry and hot summer, Ministers have agreed to waive the need for Lake Victoria to hold the first 250 gigalitres of any minimum reserve at the end of May. This decision applies to the 2018-19 season only and will allow Lake Victoria to capture more winter inflows while minimising evaporative losses.

Ministers also heard that the current water year was especially challenging for river operators to manage. MDBA River Management Executive Director Andrew Reynolds said low inflows, high evaporation rates and dry conditions, along with the need to conserve as much water as possible to meet expected peak summer demands, pushed the system to capacity. This meant there was insufficient capacity in the river channel to carry water for the environment during spring. The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, Jody Swirepik, noted that there had been difficulty in delivering environmental water because of limited channel capacity and that this had impacted on the environmental benefits that could be achieved this season from Hume Dam to the Murray mouth. 

Ministers heard that the same constraints on river channel capacity that had affected delivery of water for the environment also could affect consumptive water users. There remains a risk of a water delivery shortfall for irrigators later in the season if there is an unanticipated peak in demand that could be caused by events such as a sudden heat wave.

Ministers noted the work already agreed by Basin officials and the MDBA to minimise water delivery shortfall risks.  They committed to cooperating fully in exploring the full range of options available to manage water delivery shortfall risks for all water users. Options to be considered include changes to the river operations rules and trade rules, addressing constraints and infrastructure projects.

Ministers requested that urgent work be done by the MDBA in conjunction with the states to address River Murray deliverability challenges, for both consumptive and environmental water. This includes the immediate risk for summer and development of medium and longer term solutions. Ministers asked officials to report back at the next ministerial council meeting on this work.

Ministers reinforced their objective of improving the productivity of Basin communities, while also meeting their commitments under the Basin Plan.  Ministers also agreed that communities expected a greater level of assurance than provided under the Basin Plan around the delivery of efficiency measures in a way that did not create adverse socio-economic impacts.

Ministers noted feedback from the community, as printed in the Sefton’s report titled Murray–Darling Basin Infrastructure Program – consultation for additional criteria and agreed that the report should be publicly released.

As a result, Ministers have agreed that socio-economic criteria and the associated assessment be adopted as the basis of the neutrality test for assessing efficiency measures projects.

Ministers agreed that these criteria be applied to all efficiency measures projects that are part of the additional 450 gigalitres proposed, prior to any approval of projects. They agreed that each state establish a process to assess each project against the criteria to ensure their compliance. Projects would then be submitted to the Commonwealth.

They further agreed the criteria do not apply to the desalination project, Coorong environmental works in South Australia and the ACT Healthy Waterways projects.

As Ministers agreed in June 2018, the Commonwealth has launched the Murray-Darling Basin Water Infrastructure Program, with an initial focus on recovering the 62 gigalitres required by 30 June 2019 to enable the full 605 gigalitres Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism offset to be achieved. To maintain momentum and encourage further uptake of efficiency measures, the Commonwealth will commence an engagement program across the Basin to raise awareness of the opportunities available to stakeholders and build understanding of the environmental benefits of the program.

To accelerate the delivery of the efficiency measures program, the Commonwealth has agreed to fund the following projects or initiatives, subject to the provision of business cases by jurisdictions that meet the requirements of the Commonwealth’s assessment.  The Commonwealth and jurisdictions commit to working proactively together to ensure that the required assessments, based on the new criteria where relevant, can be undertaken as quickly as possible through clear and regular communication, timely provision of required information and timely decision-making:

NSW: Dedicated facilitators within regional NSW that will help design industry and community led projects to bring much needed investment into improved water efficiency. Importantly, these projects will be assessed in accordance with the socioeconomic neutrality criteria and will be designed to help improve resilience to the extremes of climate, such as the drought which is currently hurting some Basin communities. This could include urban, off-farm, on-farm and industrial projects;

Victoria: Victoria’s Northern Water Infrastructure prospectus, delivering up to 9 GL of projects from Shepparton East Modernisation, Mitiamo Stock and Domestic, System Savings and Sunraysia distribution channel upgrades;

South Australia: A project to investigate the contribution that the Adelaide Desalination Plant and other urban and industrial projects could make to support the implementation of a socio‑economically neutral 450 gigalitres efficiency measures program.

ACT: A project to investigate the contribution that possible urban water efficiency infrastructure projects, combined with waterway restoration, catchment management, revised water conservation measures and planning controls could make to the above mentioned 450 gigalitres efficiency measures program.

Ministers agree to progress the Constraints Measures Coordinating Work Plan, noting:

The importance of addressing constraints to the achievement of the full 605 gigalitres Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism;

That system constraints are impacting the delivery of both consumptive and environmental water and are likely to cause negative socio-economic and environmental impacts if not holistically addressed;

That the significant community concerns about the constraints program, including transparency and deliverability, will be addressed as a priority;

That community engagement and co-design in the implementation of this work plan will be fundamental to its successful delivery; and

The importance of understanding the implications and benefits of the notified constraints flow rates for delivery of the constraints package.

Constraints projects include five of the 36 projects Basin state governments have committed to delivering as part of the Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism that was endorsed by all Basin governments and legislated with bipartisan support in the Commonwealth Parliament in 2018. Constraints include physical restrictions, like low lying bridges, as well as river rules that constrain how much water can be put down a river. Current constraints reduce the ability to deliver water for the environment and for consumptive purposes. Ministers noted the importance of genuine community engagement and support for these projects.

In recognition of the importance of the Ramsar-listed Coorong to the overall health of the Murray–Darling Basin and the success of the Basin Plan, as well as the declining condition of the Coorong South Lagoon, the Commonwealth and South Australian Governments have jointly agreed to:

Quarantine the remaining unspent South Australian State Priority Project (SPP) funds of around $70 million for measures to support the long-term health of the Coorong;

Make available up to $2 million of this funding to support Commonwealth and State efforts to finalise, assess and progress the Healthy Coorong, Healthy Basin component of the Project Coorong Initiative;

Subject to the evaluation of the Healthy Coorong, Healthy Basin business case, agree to make available up to $25 million to fund the first phase of this initiative.

All Ministers reaffirmed their intention to provide high quality and well consulted Water Resource Plans to the Murray–Darling Basin Authority in a timely manner.

The Water Amendment (Water Resource Plan Accreditation) Regulations 2018 sets out timeframes for Basin jurisdictions to notify or request more time for a Water Resource Plan to be submitted for assessment by the MDBA and accredited by the Commonwealth Minister.

The jurisdictions acknowledged that the Basin Plan Sustainable Diversion Limits take effect from 1 July 2019 and, where necessary, will enter into agreements with the Commonwealth to ensure that other key accountability and transparency requirements under the Basin Plan are also operative from 1 July.  Where relevant, jurisdictions will ensure that any water resource plans delayed beyond this date are submitted and accredited by 31 December 2019.

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority and state governments will ensure that there is clear communication to the public explaining how any delays in Water Resource Plans will not undermine compliance with Sustainable Diversion Limits from 30 June 2019.

Ministers agreed that any delay in developing a Water Resource Plan should not limit the completion of other related Ministerial agreements.

Ministers Gentleman and Blair also agreed to progress the undertakings made at the June 2017 Ministerial Council meeting to enable two-way interjurisdictional water trading between NSW and the ACT.

The importance of delivering the package of Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism projects, both for Basin communities and the environment was reinforced and relevant Ministers signed the Stage 1 funding agreement to underpin the initial stage of project funding.  The Commonwealth and relevant States have agreed to work cooperatively to seek to finalise funding schedules under the Stage 1 agreement by the end of February 2019. Stage 1 activities include design work, investigations, consultations and assessments to prepare the measures for implementation. The funding of physical on-ground works will considered as part of Stage 2.

Stage 1 funding is without prejudice to negotiations and agreement for Stage 2.

To ensure that best possible outcomes are delivered for the Basin, the Commonwealth and Northern Basin jurisdictions have agreed that up to eight per cent of available funds for environmental works in the allocated Northern Basin Toolkit Measures funding will be made available to undertake project feasibility assessments. Commonwealth, Queensland and NSW ministers agreed that the Northern Basin Review IGA (agreed in principle by Ministers on 16 June 2017) be updated and finalised as soon as possible and asked officials to expedite finalisation of a National Partnership Agreement to support implementation of the toolkit measures in the first half of 2019.

The governments of NSW and Queensland recommitted to the protection of environmental water.

Basin Ministers re-affirmed their commitment to deliver their respective work plans, as outlined in the schedules to the Compliance Compact. The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) endorsed the Basin Compliance Compact on 12 December, 2018. All water Ministers agreed the Compact in June 2018 and received the first progress report assessing implementation to date.

The MDBA assurance report into state progress as well as the Independent Assurance Committee’s (IAC) report into the MDBA’s own performance were noted by all Ministers. The IAC provides expert advice to the MDBA concerning the adequacy of its compliance program. The Compliance Compact sets out the compliance implementation framework each jurisdiction has developed to improve compliance and enforcement activities. In noting the reports’ findings Ministers recognised there were different approaches and levels of maturity of compliance and enforcement frameworks across jurisdictions. The finding that overall all jurisdictions had made considerable progress in delivering on their commitments to improve transparency, accountability and consistency of water management across the Basin was welcomed. Ministers urged officials to review the findings and to prioritise progress in those areas where the need for additional effort was identified. The MDBA will publish the annual assurance reports on its website before the end of 2018.

Ministers welcomed the launch by the Australian Government on 27 November 2018 of the $20 million Hydrometric Networks and Remote Sensing Funding Program to improve hydrometric networks in the northern Basin and develop remote sensing and other technologies to enhance monitoring, measurement and compliance in all Basin jurisdictions. Murray‑Darling Basin state and territory governments and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority have been invited to submit proposals for funding under this Program by 31 January 2019. 

Basin jurisdictions and the Northern Basin Commissioner indicated their strong interest in the program and supported a strategic approach to prioritising investments in technologies to enhance monitoring, measurement and compliance.

The Commonwealth agreed to consider options for further funding for hydrometric networks and remote sensing informed by the value for money of the proposals received, advice from the Northern Basin Commissioner and the extent of any additional contributions provided by jurisdictions and project partners.

Ministers noted the Commonwealth’s commitment to draft legislative amendments to the Water Act 2007 to strengthen the Murray–Darling Basin Authority’s compliance and enforcement powers. This includes new civil penalties and criminal offences to deal with conduct such as water theft. The Commonwealth will consult with Basin governments and stakeholders on the proposed legislative changes.

Recognising that Aboriginal people are the traditional custodians of the Murray-Darling Basin, Ministers agreed that there should be a standing Aboriginal member appointed to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. The Aboriginal member on the Board would be appointed on the basis of their skills and expertise regarding indigenous matters.  They would not be appointed to represent particular regions or organisations.

The Commonwealth Minister agreed to seek an amendment to the Water Act 2007 (Cwlth) to create this new position.

Recognising that further work is still required to engage Aboriginal people in the management of water in the Basin, Ministers also endorsed the establishment of a Community of Practice to share information, build Aboriginal water policy skills, and identify gaps and opportunities. Ministers reiterated the need to have a cross section of Aboriginal perspectives represented on the Community of Practice along with state and Commonwealth government officials and asked to receive updates on progress as necessary.

Ministers charged state and government officials with progressing Basin Plan implementation noting that while timelines were tight communities had much to gain through continued collective efforts of all Basin jurisdictions.

ENDS

Media contacts:

  • Commonwealth Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, David Littleproud:
  • Les White, 0409 805 122
  • New South Wales Minister, Niall Blair: Evie Madden, 0409 682 163
  • Victorian Minister, Lisa Neville:  Nathan Motton 0447 771 882
  • South Australian Minister, David Speirs: Ryan Smith, 0466 498 060
  • Queensland Minister, Dr Anthony Lynham: David Potter 0428 411 617
  • Australian Capital Territory Minister, Mick Gentleman: James Webber 0401 657 311
  • MDBA media: (02) 6279 0141

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