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Published: 07 August 2019   •   Communiques

The Murray–Darling Basin Ministerial Council met in Canberra to discuss the impact that current drought and dry conditions are having on communities, agriculture and the environment. The Council reaffirmed its commitment to the Murray Darling Basin Plan and worked through next steps in its implementation. The Ministerial Council is chaired by the Hon. David Littleproud MP (Commonwealth). Other members attending were the Hon. Lisa Neville MP (Victoria), the Hon. Melinda Pavey MP (NSW), the Hon. David Speirs MP (South Australia), the Hon. Dr Anthony Lynham (Queensland) and Mr Mick Gentleman MLA (ACT).

Meeting highlights

  • Ministers finalised their joint response to the Productivity Commission's five-year review of the Murray–Darling Basin Plan to Basin First Ministers who will meet to discuss the response of governments when the Council of Australian Governments meets on 9 August in Cairns.
  • Ministers supported the Commonwealth's decision to establish an Inspector-General Murray–Darling Basin Water Resources to build community confidence in water management, Basin Plan implementation and compliance across the whole basin.
  • Ministers urged officials to take further actions to help manage the risk of further fish deaths this summer through the finalisation of a Native Fish Emergency Response Plan by September 2019. This will be complemented by a longer term approach, the Native Fish Management and Recovery Strategy, to be completed by April 2020.
  • Northern Basin toolkit measures to better protect low flows and environmental flows in the northern Basin were reviewed by Ministers. To give effect to these measures and release $180 million in Commonwealth funding, all Ministers endorsed amendments to the Intergovernmental Agreement on Implementing Water Reform in the Murray-Darling Basin ahead of consideration by Basin First Ministers at their meeting on 9 August.

Effective River Management

Ministers expressed concern about the current and future impact of drought across large parts of Australia, including the Basin. The drought has hit the northern Basin hard. Dam levels across the Queensland Murray–Darling Basin are low and in northern New South Wales, communities are running out of water. Storages across the northern Basin are at about 9 per cent compared with 30 per cent at this time last year. Storages in the River Murray are at about 38 per cent compared with last year's level of about 57 per cent. With the climate outlook for a continuation of dry conditions this spring, Ministers discussed the need for jurisdictions to continue to communicate with their water entitlement holders about allocations and the possibility that dry conditions would continue into the 2020-2021 water year, potentially triggering Tier 2 water sharing arrangements in the southern Basin. Tier 2 water sharing results from very low water availability and means critical human water needs are prioritised.

Ministers agreed that the Basin Officials Committee, with the help of the MDBA, will report to the next Ministerial Council meeting on further options within existing rules and agreements to improve drought adaptability when a particular state or the ACT is in extreme drought.

Ministers were updated on the work to resolve the risk of water delivery shortfall on the River Murray, including the work by New South Wales and Victoria on interim sharing arrangements for the current water year; and the wider work on options for enduring arrangements. The Ministers received a report from the MDBA on the work requested by Ministers at their meeting in December 2018 to address deliverability challenges for both consumptive and environmental water. The MDBA updated Ministers on the modelling work program and the results from the first phases of the work that looked at the effects on water delivery of changes in land use in the southern Basin. Additional modelling and analysis will be undertaken by December 2019 that will further investigate compounding factors such as the role of Inter Valley Trade, the Barmah Choke's capacity and climate extremes. This work will support consideration of a range of possible enduring arrangements. Ministers agreed to appoint an independent panel of experts to peer review the Murray River Capacity Risks Project. The experts and terms of reference are to be agreed by the Commonwealth, NSW, Victoria, ACT and South Australia and report back to the next Ministerial Council meeting.

Ministers noted Minister Neville's decision to assess any applications for new works licences for extraction in the Murray River below the Barmah Choke in light of the likely cumulative impacts of increasing extractions on the environment and other water users for the next 12 months.  Minister Neville took the action to make sure that delivery risks and the impacts of delivering peak flows over summer don't increase, from a Victorian perspective. While the risk of a water delivery shortfall this year remained small due to declining water availability, Ministers noted that the risk still remained and called for the work on enduring water sharing arrangements and potential policy responses to be fast-tracked.

The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, Ms Jody Swirepik, briefed Ministers on how water for the environment has been used across the Basin to provide key refuge habitat during the drought. Ms Swirepik noted there is only a modest amount of water available for use in the current water year which will be used prudently to protect key environmental sites.

Improving implementation of the Plan for Basin Communities

Ministers finalised their comprehensive joint advice to Basin First Ministers to address the Productivity Commission's recent five-year review of the Murray–Darling Basin Plan. Ministers noted the opportunity and importance of improving community confidence in the Plan through establishing a strong oversight role in an Inspector-General. In finalising their advice on the response to the Productivity Commission report, Ministers highlighted that successful implementation of the Basin Plan will require increased attention and action in responding to climate change, engaging Aboriginal peoples, building resilient communities, enhancing environmental outcomes and restoring confidence in the Basin Plan. South Australia's Minister Speirs noted that the response to the Productivity Commission would contribute to the response to the South Australian Royal Commission. Ministers thanked the Productivity Commission for the review and looked forward to the response being released after it is discussed by Basin First Ministers in a side meeting of the Council of Australian Government meeting on 9 August.

Northern Basin Commissioner, Mr Mick Keelty AO APM, outlined the approach he will be taking in his annual report due to be provided to the Commonwealth Water Minister in September 2019. The report will contain recommendations that go to the policies, communications, governance, historical elements, Aboriginal engagement and environmental outcomes for Basin Plan Implementation in the Northern Basin. Ministers recognised the important role that Mr Keelty has been playing in the Northern Basin and thanked him for this role. They also welcomed his appointment as the Interim Inspector-General for Murray-Darling Basin Water Resources.

Ministers considered the work to date to establish a comprehensive work program to manage the risk of future fish deaths and to respond to the final report by the Independent Panel into fish deaths in the Lower Darling, led by Professor Vertessy. Ministers noted that the Australian Government has announced funding of over $70 million for a range of measures in response to Professor Vertessy's report.  They agreed that all relevant Basin governments will need to continue to prioritise the ongoing response to the Vertessy recommendations. Ministers noted the work of jurisdictions to date. Ministers noted the development of the Native Fish Management and Recovery Strategy, and directed officials to fast track immediate activities, including continued fish monitoring in the Lower Darling and a rapid response plan to deploy should conditions continue to deteriorate, ahead of this summer. Ministers commended Professor Vertessy's panel for its quick and comprehensive work and emphasized the need for officials to work collaboratively on the longer term strategy for native fish management and recovery.

Australian Minister for Water Resources, David Littleproud, briefed Ministerial Council members on the current work of the independent panel assessing the social and economic condition of the Basin. He said the panel recently released its draft terms of reference for consultation and outlined its proposed approach to undertaking the task, which will involve strong consultation with Basin communities. Ministers noted the ambitious scope of work and tight timeframes for delivery and asked for an update from the panel at its next meeting to hear what was coming out of their communities.

Ministers noted progress in establishing the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) review into water markets in the Murray–Darling Basin. Ministers undertook to support the ACCC in its inquiry, including by providing ready access to data on water markets. Minister Littleproud said it was important to improve transparency of the market, to make sure it was operating as intended and test for unintended consequences.

The Basin Community Committee Chairman, Rory Treweeke, reported heightened community concerns in part because of the intense drought and in part because of perceived slow Basin Plan implementation. On behalf of his committee he pointed out the long term benefits of the Basin Plan and urged Ministers to stick with the Basin Plan implementation. Ministers remained committed to seeking views and feedback from the Basin Community Committee.

Delivering the Basin Plan

The MDBA's mid-year 2019 report card that tracks progress in implementing six key areas of the Basin Plan was provided to Ministers. The report shows that good progress has been made in water recovery, managing compliance and delivering water for the environment. However, areas of implementation risk included the Sustainable Diversion Limit adjustment mechanism, finalisation of some Water Resource Plans and implementation of northern Basin initiatives. Ministers endorsed the intergovernmental agreement regarding toolkit measures which is a significant milestone and will release $180 million in Commonwealth funding to help improve environmental outcomes in the northern Basin.

Ministers noted that funding arrangements for pre-construction activities for seventeen supply and constraints measure infrastructure projects under the Sustainable Diversion Limit adjustment mechanism had been agreed between the Commonwealth and Basin states. Under these arrangements the Commonwealth is providing up to $129 million to Basin States to undertake stakeholder consultation, progress statutory approvals and complete detailed design work. Ministers noted the progress made to date and reaffirmed the importance of building on this work to ensure the successful implementation of the package.

Ministers acknowledged the recent launch of the $1.5 billion Water Efficiency Program which includes the social and economic criteria agreed by Ministers at their December 2018 meeting. The projects that proceed will have a positive or neutral impact on communities. This program will assist in recovering remaining gap-bridging water required to meet 2019 obligations in the Basin Plan, and progress the recovery of water through efficiency measures with neutral or positive socio-economic outcomes. 

Ministers discussed the delivery of constraints relaxation projects. Ministers noted the progress in developing governance, funding and implementation arrangements including the implementation of the Constraints Measures Program Coordinating Work Plan. Ministers underlined the need to ensure that coordinated implementation provided the environmental and river channel capacity outcomes that well-designed constraints projects can deliver for landholders and the environment. Ministers noted that successful implementation of the constraints program will require close engagement with landholders and local communities, as outlined in the comprehensive risk management strategy for the coordinated implementation of the constraints program.

Victoria and New South Wales will undertake independent modelling of flow rates under constraints projects, and report back to Ministerial Council in December. They will ensure the MDBA's modelling work (agreed to be provided by the MDBA) and the work of the River Murray Capacity Project is taken into account. South Australia, Queensland and the ACT noted that the review work proposed by Victoria and New South Wales had the potential to create risk around constraints implementation and that it was critical that implementation not be impeded.

Ministers also discussed the need for increased transparency about the Joint Venture work program and budget ahead of next year's budget. They also noted the work underway to establish appropriate water trade mechanisms between New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory.

Ministers noted that Basin First Ministers, who will meet in Cairns on Friday 9 August, will receive an update on conditions in the Murray–Darling Basin and progress in implementing the Murray–Darling Basin Plan.

Read the Joint Government response to the Productivity Commission inquiry report: Murray–Darling Basin Plan: Five–year assessment 

More about the Ministerial Council and communiques from previous meetings

In attendance and media contacts:

  • Commonwealth Minister for Water Resources, Drought, Rural Finance, Natural Disaster and Emergency Management, David Littleproud: Robert Herrick, 0432 324 576
  • New South Wales Minister, Melinda Pavey: Jessica Cole, 0448 722 437
  • Victorian Minister, Lisa Neville:  Nikki Mott, 0416 311 214
  • 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, 0466 023 084

MDBA media: (02) 6279 0141

The communique was updated to correct a factual error on 8 August 2019

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