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We must meet our climate challenges head on, together

Murray–Darling Basin Authority Chair Sir Angus Houston addresses the River reflections conference

Published: 02 June 2022

Delegates at the River reflections annual water conference today heard about the challenges we all face due to climate change and how we must work together to make the Murray–Darling Basin ready for a more variable, drier and hotter future.

In his address, The future of the Murray–Darling Basin, Murray–Darling Basin Authority Chair Sir Angus Houston said we must adjust our approach based on what we have learnt and continue in partnership with experts, communities and First Nations People.

"After traversing much of it, I can truly say the Murray–Darling Basin is one of Australia's greatest wonders. Its wellbeing is crucial for Australia's future – now more than ever," Sir Angus said.

"Leaders of communities, industries and within government can move mountains. Together we must meet our challenges head on and, importantly, 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.

"We're not alone in our challenge, we have come a long way, and we have seen the benefits of implementing the Basin Plan.

"Southern California's ‘megadrought' has brought the most severe restrictions with water cut by 35% on the first day of summer, affecting 6 million people. Similar conditions are afflicting east Africa, Chile and Argentina."

Sir Angus said the opposite had occurred in Australia.

"Our dams and lakes are at their fullest since Dartmouth Dam was built in 1979. Only 3 years ago we were in the throes of the worst drought on record for some parts of the Basin.

"The difference between the recent drought and the Millennium drought in the 2000s was the freeing-up of life-giving water for the environment, which connected rivers, fed the mighty river redgums and provided wildlife refuges. This was the Murray–Darling Basin Plan in action.

Murray–Darling Basin Plan and achievements

"As a world-leading water reform, the Murray–Darling Basin Plan's intent is to restore the balance between the water we take and what the environment needs to sustain us all.

"Much has been achieved, but it's been damn hard, particularly for communities whose economies are intrinsically linked to irrigation.

"What we have all lived through has been remarkable at the historic scale.

"The Basin is now better connected and more than 2,100 gigalitres of water is actively managed for a healthier river system to maintain important wetlands, support waterbirds to breed and native fish to spawn, and underpin the wellbeing of communities.

"As the former chief executive Phillip Glyde said, he never met anyone who liked the Basin Plan, but he also never met anyone who wanted to go back to the way it was."

Sir Angus said the Basin Plan would be reviewed in 2026 to meet the needs of the future.

"There is no plan in human history that can't be improved with the benefit of hindsight," Sir Angus said.

"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.

The 2026 Basin Plan Review will ask 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 will not be doing the review just because we are legally obliged. None of us would be doing our job properly if we didn't reflect, plan and adjust," Sir Angus said.

"This is about doing justice to the people whose lives and businesses depend on the Basin – the mechanic in St George, the fisherman in the Coorong, the Barkindji Elder in Menindee or the table grape grower in Sunraysia.

"We now know so much more about climate change than we did 10 years ago when the Basin Plan came into effect.

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

Sir Angus Houston told delegates that more science and knowledge needs to be gathered ahead of the Review and outlined the MDBA's plan in the next few years.

Murray–Darling Basin Outlook

Sir Angus said in the next few years the MDBA will release the Murray–Darling Basin Outlook. The Outlook would be an insight into what life may be like in the Basin in 2050 – the health of the Basin's water resources and ecosystems, First Nations priorities, agriculture, the tourism sector and communities.

"The MDB Outlook will identify what's at risk under a hotter and drier climate with more extreme weather events. What does that mean for communities, economies and the environment? In 2050, what will the social fabric of the Basin cities and towns be like?"

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

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

Other research programs

Sir Angus said the findings of the government's multi-million-dollar investment in river modelling and water and environment science must also be considered.

"Through the MDBA's $66 million river modelling uplift 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.

"Taking the evidence from all the work underway in the next few years, together we will plan for the future through the 2026 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 of this important work takes time. It cannot be rushed.

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

"With the outlook of a hotter, drier climate with more demand for water, we must give our rivers a fighting chance at survival."

The River reflections annual water conference is taking place in Mildura, Victoria on Wednesday, 1 June and Thursday, 2 June 2022.

River reflections provides the space and time for the diverse communities and industries of the Murray–Darling Basin to come together. It is an opportunity to share innovations in water management, knowledge and lessons learned while celebrating achievements.

Sir Angus Houston addresses the Reiver Reflections Conference on day 2
Sir Angus Houston addresses the Reiver Reflections Conference on day 2


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