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Published: 20 December 2019   •   Communiques

The Murray–Darling Basin Ministerial Council met in Brisbane on Tuesday during trying times for communities across the Basin. The meeting took place in the context of drought conditions across significant parts of the Basin. Communities are facing substantial pressure and stress. Some town water supplies are running low, there are widespread bushfires across the eastern seaboard, water prices are high and communities reliant on irrigated agriculture are suffering. The natural environment is under increasing stress with further fish deaths expected this summer. The impacts of this drought are far reaching.

Ministers received an update on the inflows to the system and the operating and weather outlook. Dam levels continue to decline and are well below long term averages. Northern storages are at 7 per cent, while southern storages are at 42 per cent. The outlook from the Bureau of Meteorology is for ongoing dry conditions and higher than average temperatures.

Ministers discussed the differing perspectives emerging on water management in the Basin and how these reflect the acute pressures being felt in their communities especially during times of lower water availability. They acknowledge communities want to know that governments are considering all options to make the most of this vital resource and are balancing the needs of all users and interests fairly.

In the northern Basin, water sharing arrangements have already been suspended in many catchments to ensure water is available for human use. All water stored in the northern Basin – including water for irrigators and the environment – is now quarantined to ensure remaining reserves can meet critical human needs.

For the southern Basin, council reflected on the learnings from the Millennium Drought. The Council reaffirmed the need to plan for critical human water needs above all other interests. In the Murray, this is known as Tier 2 arrangements. It's unlikely at this stage that we'll enter Tier 2 arrangements in the 2020/21 water year.

Ministers thanked Mr Mick Keelty, AO for his work as Northern Basin Commissioner. They also acknowledged receipt of his first year report.

Council reaffirmed their support for establishing the Inspector-General as agreed in August 2019 and noted the progress made preparing the Commonwealth legislation for the position. Ministers discussed the role of the Inspector-General of Murray-Darling Basin Water Resources in providing oversight of compliance and improving community confidence in water management arrangements. Council noted the Commonwealth's proposal that the Inspector-General's role will be expanded to monitor the management of Basin water resources under both Basin State and Commonwealth legislation. Ministers agreed to work together to negotiate an in-principle agreement to ensure that the Inspector-General has appropriate support from Basin States for his statutory powers and functions. The Commonwealth made clear it would continue to seek Basin jurisdictions' support for referral of relevant state powers necessary to provide the community with confidence in the management of Basin water resources.

Ministers noted the Commonwealth's request for assistance with the Interim Inspector-General's investigation into management of Basin water resources. Some State Ministers expressed concern that the investigation extends to a review of water sharing arrangements and that they will not participate. The Commonwealth Minister confirmed the investigation will commence immediately.

Ministers recognised the importance of being able to continuously adapt Water Resource Plans in response to stakeholder concerns and improved evidence. The Basin Plan provides a clear mechanism to allow these plans to be amended, including during the accreditation process undertaken by the MDBA and the Commonwealth Water Minister. Ministers know the importance of submitting all Water Resource Plans as quickly as possible to provide certainty to communities.

NSW informed council that work has progressed on their 20 water resource plans and that community consultation was key. Minister Pavey told council that NSW would not be able to submit all its plans at this time, and that some plans may require further community consultation.

Council discussed the status of water recovery across the Basin. Council asked the Australian Government to work with jurisdictions to consider losses from open channels, including infrastructure upgrades that can contribute to efficiency measures

New South Wales noted that due to the severe and extended drought, it was not able to contribute any further water under the 450 GL efficiency measures. South Australia noted no position on the 450 GL was put formally to Council regarding any changes to the plan and no approval or endorsement was provided for any state to not contribute to all aspects of the plan. The ACT advised the council that the territory remains committed to bringing forward projects under the water recovery program to secure water for the ACT community and to support environmental flows across the basin. This includes finalising water trading arrangements with New South Wales to provide flexibility and opportunities for regional and rural communities. Queensland provided advice to the Commonwealth Minister regarding opportunities to complete the water recovery task in Queensland. Victoria advised it had not changed its position. Victoria does not support any further water recovery unless it can be shown there are no negative socio-economic impacts as per the agreed criteria.

Ministers were briefed by Dr Jane Doolan chair of the independent panel on the risks and challenges of delivery shortfall in the southern Murray-Darling Basin. The Panel found that the risk of delivery shortfall is real and increasing due to a number of factors including reducing channel capacity at the Barmah Choke and in downstream tributaries, and increasing horticulture development in the Murray Valley. The council agreed to work together on extraction in the River Murray downstream of the Barmah Choke to protect current water entitlement holders. Officials from Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia will work together to identify interim precautionary measures that can be immediately implemented to limit increases of extractions in the River Murray, and look at contingency measures if the risk is realised. They asked officials to report back to Ministerial Council by end of February 2020. Ministers also asked the independent panel to work with officials on possible interim precautionary measures to manage deliverability risk, and to report back to their next meeting.

The council noted the report of the Independent Expert Panel on Constraints Modelling that was commissioned by Victoria and NSW. Ministerial Council agreed that Basin Officials Committee will consider the report and provide advice on its recommendations to the next council meeting. 

Ministers thanked outgoing Basin Community Committee chair Rory Treweeke who encouraged Ministers to remain firm in their bipartisan commitment to the Basin Plan and its long-term objectives. Ministers welcomed the appointment of Phil Duncan, the committee's first Aboriginal person in the role of chair.

Ministers are acutely aware of concerns around the operation of the water market and are committed to acting based on solid, expert information. They heard from Mr Mick Keogh, Deputy Chairman, Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) on the progress of his review into water markets in the Murray-Darling Basin. They asked the ACCC to provide advice by March 2020 on the impact of overseas ownership, monopoly ownership and unhelpful speculation, and to consider if changes are required to trading rules. Ministers also asked the ACCC to consider registration of brokers across state borders. Ministers agreed that all southern Basin jurisdictions will work together to consider improving their marketing transparency arrangements.

Ministers welcomed the independent review of the science of the Lower Lakes to be led by the CSIRO with support from the MDBA's science committee. The review will test and clarify the underlying considerations behind the management of the lower end of the river system, including the social, economic and environmental factors.  

In attendance and media contacts:

  • Commonwealth Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, 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: 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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