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Published: 31 October 2019   •   Opinion pieces

In recent weeks community voices have increasingly shared their experience of the major problem we are facing as a nation—drought. Last Monday night many of us watched as participants and panellists on the ABC's Q&A program raised their fears and concerns about the worsening conditions and shared their frustrations and the need for confidence in the road ahead.

In the Murray–Darling Basin the drought provides the context for all use and management of water right now. It's not even summer yet some communities have run out of water and many others are on high-level water restrictions.

The tug-of-war over access to water that we saw on Q&A is the exact space in which the MDBA works: there is a finite amount of water to share but everyone wants more.

While conditions in the southern Basin are roughly a year behind the north in drought terms, many southern New South Wales communities are already experiencing severe stress from the lack of water for crops and all eyes are on maintaining a reserve in the system for next year.

The MDBA and Basin Governments sit at the centre of the debate about who has access to how much water. In all but the wettest years, it's a scarce resource.

In the River Murray system that means, as joint managers, state governments have to operate a tight ship and stick fast to the rules of the Murray–Darling Basin Agreement, which they designed to give us the best chance of supplying drinking water and ensuring the river can deliver water to all communities along its length. The MDBA applies the states' rules in the Murray system, and has done so since 1917.

More recently we helped the Commonwealth, state and territory governments to implement the Basin Plan. It is the role of governments to make the decisions about sharing water in the best interests of all Australians. Over the last seven years through the Basin Plan, the six governments having been doing this carefully and in a bipartisan way.

Steadily moving about one-fifth of the water that was once used by irrigators back to the river to support its long-term health is a tough ask for farmers and their communities. We in the MDBA expect people to be angry, upset and hurt, and drought makes it infinitely more difficult to persist with such a major reform.

As the effective umpire, it is important the MDBA is held to account. We take on board robust criticism but at the end of the day we are here to ensure a finite resource benefits all. The anger and frustration that comes with the magnitude of this reform is understandable and real—we talk to people across the Basin every day.

In much of the northern Basin, that effort has coincided with the extended drought and it is to the credit of farming communities that reform is continuing. The share of water returning to the rivers means 320 gigalitres more water on average will get down the Darling River than is now the case.

This is what several people were calling for on Q&A. Unfortunately while we remain in drought nothing is coming down the Darling, but relief is at hand as water licences have been bought back from upstream irrigators.

The Basin Plan specifically provides for the environment in times like these, and water returned to the environment has been doing this for the past seven years. Nonetheless, we are expecting more fish deaths and water quality issues like blue-green algae this summer as the river environment struggles without rain.

The MDBA realises not everyone can get what they want but with the Basin Plan everyone gets something.

This is not about stopping drought—no government policy can do that. But this generation has made the hard choice to better prepare the river for future drought. Improving the efficiency of farmers has also better prepared them for future drought. This was confirmed by the Prime Minister and Basin premiers as recently as August at the Council of Australian Governments meeting. 

We know it is hard to see river water running past farms when crops are suffering. The water is there because farmers and environmental water holders are using the water they stored from previous years and had made a conscious decision not to access it until now.

The long-term weather forecast suggests there is little relief in sight. Water allocations and entitlements vary from state to state, but in the current environment it is expected water will be allocated to those with high security entitlements and those with lesser entitlements are likely to remain without an allocation unless it rains.

In these times, commitment to the Basin Plan is more important than ever. When things are tough, available water must stretch between communities, irrigators and the river environment. The Q&A program showed us all the difficulty of satisfying all of the demands for this most precious resource. 


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