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Published: 18 December 2018   •   Opinion pieces

2018 was a landmark year for the Murray–Darling Basin and the Basin Plan.

We are half way through implementing this long term, complex and essential reform.

For the Murray–Darling Basin Authority, this means moving from being the designers and implementers of the Plan to becoming its reviewers, reporters, and regulators.

This year’s achievements included the successful passage of two sets of amendments through the Australian Parliament. One concerned changing some settings in the northern Basin, introducing new measures to strengthen compliance and guard against water theft, others to protect water for the environment and another to reduce the volume of water that needed to be returned to the environment.

The other amendment concerned the southern Basin and making water use smarter and more efficient. The environment stands to benefit from the delivery of infrastructure projects and changes to the rules about how the rivers are managed; and irrigators will benefit because 605 gigalitres of water stays in consumptive use.

The passage of these amendments marks an important milestone in Basin Plan implementation. First, although it was sorely tested, multi-jurisdictional, bipartisan support was maintained. This is something to be celebrated. Twelve years is a long time to stay the course.

Without the commitment of all Basin governments and both sides of politics, this critically important reform could not be achieved. At its heart, this reform is about making sure the Basin can sustain its communities, industries and environment into the future.

Secondly, the amendment process was written into the Basin Plan in 2012 so that the settings could change to reflect improvements in our understanding of how we can achieve a sustainable Basin with the least impact on communities and industries. Far from the amendment process weakening the Plan it in fact demonstrates its strength.

Thirdly, it gives all Basin jurisdictions a clear and ambitious work program for the next six years. I recognise that timelines are tight for states to deliver changes of this magnitude. I also recognise that there is continued commentary around the 450 gigalitres that must be recovered by 2024 through efficiency measures that have a positive or neutral social and economic effect. There is a long way to go and it will be challenging.

That said, looking back to 2017 there were justifiably widespread concerns about water theft and a lack of will on the part of some regulators to police it. In 2017, I would have found it hard to imagine that through 2018, such inroads could have been made so quickly to improve compliance.

The MDBA and an independent panel conducted a review of compliance across the Basin. That review identified an urgent need to strengthen compliance regimes. It led to a Compliance Compact that this week was endorsed by the Prime Minister, Premiers and Chief Ministers at the Council of Australian Government’s meeting in December.

States have not waited until this milestone to act on the obligations that are spelt out in the Compact. The Australian Water Minister, David Littleproud, has appointed former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty as the Northern Basin Commissioner to strengthen compliance with water rules.

New South Wales, which at the time of the review had the most catching up to do, has established an independent Natural Resources Access Regulator, which within a year has several successful prosecutions under its belt. New South Wales has also introduced a new metering policy, which began in December. We are encouraged by the state’s commitment to reform.

Along the way, the Murray–Darling Basin Authority also successfully tested the use of satellite imagery to keep watch over a major northern watering event, proving the viability of using satellite images to help enforce compliance.

We also strengthened the ability of Aboriginal nations in the Basin to understand and contribute to discussion and decisions related to cultural water flows.

All of those are important milestones that will have a lasting impact across the entire Basin and set Australia up as a world leader in water reform, as we deliver on the Basin Plan over the next six years.

These measures can and should improve confidence in the Basin Plan. With this level of determination and delivery behind us I have full confidence that we can deliver on the next stage of the Plan.

Of course, heading into 2019 we are all watching the weather keenly. A long hot summer and the potential for a repeat of a dry winter are foremost in my thoughts. We are well aware of the tough time many people are facing due to the drought.

I urge water users to plan ahead for all scenarios, including the possibility that allocations do not improve and conditions stay dry.

The coming year will present plenty of challenges. But we head into the new year knowing the Basin Plan is on a stronger footing to deliver a healthy working river system for all Australians.

End

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