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Sir Angus Houston address – River reflections 2022

A transcript of Sir Angus Houston's keynote address to the River reflections conference in Mildura: The Future of the Murray–Darling Basin.

Published: 02 June 2022

Sir Angus Houston addresses the 2022 River Reflections Conference at Mildura on day 2

The future of the Murray–Darling Basin

Good morning and thank you. 

I’m delighted to be a double act with the Inspector-General of Water Compliance, Troy Grant. 

I would like to start by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we are meeting – the First Peoples of the Millewa-Mallee. I pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging.  

When the Plan for managing the Basin’s water resources was first developed, the MDBA took inspiration from Tom Trevorrow, proud Ngarrindjeri Leader from Kurangk, or Coorong, in South Australia.  

Tom dedicated his life to the protection and teaching of his Culture and Beliefs to his people, the Ngarrindjeri and all non-Indigenous people. 

He said: 

“Our traditional management plan was don't be greedy.  

"Don't take any more than you need and respect everything around you.  

That's the management plan—it's such a simple management plan, but so hard for people to carry out."    

I thank Tom’s family for permission to repeat these words, which carry so much power. 

We can all relate to his words – finding the balance should be easy, but it is a difficult challenge. 

I knew when I took on this job, it was going to be hard and contested.  

After almost 2 years, I can tell you it’s all true. But the endeavour, the purpose, is also very rewarding.   

I feel privileged to have engaged with the people I have met and get an insight of this critical part of our nation and I am delighted play my role in its future.  

I’ve done 7 trips across the Basin, in my time as chair.  

After traversing much of it, I can truly say the Murray–Darling Basin is one of Australia’s great wonders and its wellbeing is crucial for Australia’s future – now more than ever.  

The nation’s future is where we all have a role to play.  

At this conference last year in Griffith, I spoke about the need for all of us to lead in a collaborative way to address the challenges going forward. 

As leaders of your communities, industries and within government, you can move mountains. We must meet our challenges head on, and we must do this together.  

As the Authority overseeing the Basin’s water resources, our job at the MDBA is to uphold the promise of a healthy river system, successful businesses, and resilient communities.  

The global challenge of water management 

We have come a long way, and we’re not alone in our challenge. 

In southern California yesterday, on the first day of summer, the most severe water restrictions came into effect due to a “megadrought”. 

Water use must be cut by 35 per cent, affecting 6 million people.  

Similar conditions are afflicting east Africa, Chile and Argentina.  

Meanwhile, we have seen the opposite here in Australia. From droughts to flooding rains.  

Our dams and lakes are at their fullest since Dartmouth Dam was built in 1979. That turnaround is quite astonishing.  

If you cast your mind back, only three years ago we were in the throes of the worst drought on record for some parts of the Basin.  

What was the difference between that drought and the Millennium drought in the 2000s? Well, life-giving water for the environment, that connected rivers, fed the mighty river redgums, and provided refuge for wildlife.  

Basin Plan and achievements  

The Murray–Darling Basin Plan – you will be familiar with the name if not the detail – is a world-leading water reform. Its intent is to restore the balance between our water use and what the environment needs to sustain us all.

As the minister said, it’s 10 years since this remarkable agreement was struck and governments crossed the political divide for the greater good.

I think it’s important to take stock and look at what we have all done through hard work, collaboration, and commitment.

Much has been achieved.

The cap on water use came into effect in 1995 and within 2 decades, water extraction had reduced by 15 to 20 per cent. I think that’s an extraordinary result.

There’s been almost 3 decades of incremental, disruptive, life-altering change.

It’s been damn hard, particularly for communities whose economies are intrinsically linked to irrigation.

What we have all lived through is remarkable at the historic scale.

As former chief executive Phillip Glyde told me, and, by the way, I found this incredible, he never met anyone who liked the Basin Plan, but he also had never met anyone who wanted to go back to the way it was before.

There is no plan in human history that can’t be improved with the benefit of hindsight.

For the Basin Plan we now have 10 years of hindsight.

In 2026, we will be reviewing this most significant water reform to make it better for the future.

We’re not just doing the review because we are legally obligated to. We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do.

None of us would be doing our job properly if we didn’t reflect, plan and adjust.  We would not be doing justice to the people whose lives and businesses depend on the Basin.

Through the review we will be asking 4 key questions:

How can the Basin Plan be improved to address future challenges, including climate change? 

How could the Basin Plan framework be simplified? 

How do we get the best outcomes for all social, cultural, environmental and economic values? 

How can the Basin Plan be improved to recognise First Nation’s values in water management and enhance their involvement? 

We’re not doing justice to the mechanic in St George, the fisherman in the Coorong, the Barkindji Elder in Menindee or the table grape grower in Sunraysia if we just set and forget and keep on, keeping on.

To do nothing after everything we have seen and learnt is irresponsible and reckless.

It’s like flying an aircraft on autopilot, knowing the destination has changed, and doing nothing about it.

To do nothing is not supporting you, your community or our grandchildren’s future. All the things that matter.

How we manage and safeguard water in the Basin has come a long way. Much has been achieved. But there is still much to do.

It is fitting that we come together here in Mildura during National Reconciliation Week, the theme of which is Be Brave. Make Change.

Because change is coming, and we can put our heads in the sand, or stand up high, look to the future and plan for it.

Climate change is no longer knocking on the door. We are all living with it now.

Climate change is the most significant challenge of our age and for the Murray–Darling Basin.

In my tours of Basin communities, almost every single person has shared their concerns about climate change and what it means for their farm, their business, their community.

“Megadroughts”, “rain bombs”, “heat domes”, “danger days”. These are new terms in our collective vocabulary because of climate change.

We know much more about climate change than we did 10 years ago when the Plan came into force.

It is shifting the fundamental characteristics and connectivity of the Basin.

According to the CSIRO, by 2050-60 average annual streamflow could reduce by 20 to 30 per cent. This is due to less rainfall and higher evaporation and plant transpiration. We will also see more extreme weather events.

Your lived experience no doubt mirrors this emerging reality.

The parameters of our experience with our climate are becoming more extreme.

It would be reckless and irresponsible to fail to incorporate new evidence about our climate.

It would be reckless and irresponsible to rush the science and jump to conclusions.

It would be reckless and irresponsible to not discuss what we learn with the affected communities.

The more information we have, the better prepared we are to make informed decisions about the future.

Let me say a few words about the MDB Outlook

In the next few years, we will release an insight into what life in the Basin may be like in 2050. In essence, this really is the first phase of the Basin Plan Review.

The Murray–Darling Basin Outlook will paint a picture of the health of the Basin’s water resources and ecosystems, First Nations priorities, agriculture and tourism sectors and communities.

It will identify what’s at risk under a climate that is trending hotter and drier with more extreme weather events? What does that mean for communities, economies and the environment?

In 2050, what will the social fabric of our Basin cities and towns be like? 

The Outlook will seek to reflect what is important to First Nation's people, and to better understand impacts on these priorities. This has implications for what Country will look like and how it is managed for future generations.

We will share data and insight on waterbirds at key wetlands like the Macquarie Marshes, Barmah Forest and the Coorong.

We will explore the population trend and condition of iconic fish species like Murray cod, golden perch, silver perch-trout cod, freshwater catfish within catchments.

We will cross check what the science is telling us with the lived experience of Basin communities to make sure it lines up with the trends people are seeing.

We cannot and will not do this work behind closed doors.

We are partnering with the country’s leading universities, researchers, First Nations leaders and others and will share what we learn with all Basin communities.

The Outlook is really the start of the journey as we gather the intelligence about the future.

Other research programs

The outcomes of the government’s multi-million-dollar investment in water and environment science and river modelling must also be considered.

While there are global climate models, more work is needed to apply this forecasting intelligence to the Basin and its myriad of unique rivers, catchments and floodplains.

Through our $66 million river modelling program, we are stitching together all the Basin’s models. Part of the reason why is so we can see how climate change will affect our river flows.

By 2024, we expect to have local hydroclimate information across the Basin. This information will scope the local and Basin-scale impacts of climate change.

From here we will have more specific information at the local and catchment scale about how climate change will impact water availability and water quality and what it means for our wetlands and floodplains.

We will share what we learn with communities every step of the way.

Taking what we have learnt through the Outlook, the river modelling uplift, the extensive water and environment research program and the Basin Plan Evaluation in 2025, together we can plan for the future through the Review.

The Review will be the Authority’s vehicle to deliver advice to government on the necessary settings of the Basin Plan for the years ahead.

Settings that ensure the Plan is sensible, defensible, and sustainable.

All this important work takes time. It cannot be rushed. 

The new government’s commitment to update Basin science can significantly enhance our work to ensure the Basin Plan Review is based on the best available information.

We make better decisions with evidence.

We make better decisions when we share what we learn, ground truth it with the people it affects and have a conversation with the nation about it.

We make better decisions when our eyes are wide open to the trade-offs and consequences.

We cannot jump to decisions or short-term solutions without the evidence. This is just too important.

By looking forward and considering what’s at risk in the Basin’s future we can have an honest conversation as a nation about what we do about it.

What does it mean for your business? What does it mean for your part of the river, or local wetland? What does it mean for your community or town? 

Which values do we preserve? What do we agree to let change, and which ones do we forgo?

These will be hard, confronting and heart wrenching conversations, but ones we must have, going forward.

And we can’t have these conversations without knowing what the future holds for all our values – environmental, economic, cultural and social.

Keeping on with the Plan

You just heard the new Minister for Water, the Hon Tanya Plibersek, she leads this important portfolio at a watershed moment.

The Plan is at a pivotal point in its implementation, and with the outlook of a hotter, drier climate with more demand for water, we must give our rivers a fighting chance at survival.

That means delivering what they signed up to in 2012.

  • The constraints relaxation projects, known as SDLAM.
  • The 450 GL in additional water efficiency measures.
  • For New South Wales, delivering water resource plans that make the grade.

Not just because it is set out in law, but because it’s the right thing to do. The remaining elements of the Basin Plan are central to giving our rivers the best chance.

Strong and practical political leadership is needed.

If Basin governments cannot work together and progress the most pressing issues with the Plan’s implementation, how will the nation face these new and urgent challenges?

A step change in state engagement is needed.

Now is the time to put the shoulder to the wheel and make good on the commitments made 10 years ago so we are all in the best position possible to enjoy what the Basin has to offer now and into the future.

It’s been 10 years since the Basin Plan.

Much has been achieved.

Lessons have been learnt.

But, there is still much to do.

Let’s do this together.

Collaborative leadership is absolutely vital right across our wide community.

Ends.

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