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How water is used in the Basin

Water is used for many different agricultural industries in the Murray–Darling Basin.

Water is allocated to irrigators based on water availability and rules set out by different Basin governments. Each state has developed its own set of licences and rules around how to allocate water to their entitlement holders. This means allocations, water orders and delivery of water all work in a different way from state to state.

Some entitlements are more reliable than others, meaning some entitlement holders receive an allocation most years, while other allocations are more variable depending on rules and rainfall.

Water can be used, stored, traded or reallocated

When water is allocated to irrigators by their state authority, it is up to individuals to determine how they use their water, based on their own business needs. Irrigators can choose to:

  • use their allocation on their farm
  • trade all or some of their allocation to another water user
  • buy an allocation off another water user and use that water for their farm
  • save water for the next irrigation year – this is called carryover (some licence types limit whether water can be carried over)
  • leave their water un-used, which means it stays in the dam and returns to the state’s pool for re-allocation.

Carrying water over

Not all water allocated to an irrigator is used. Some water is saved by individuals for the next water season—this means they have water in reserve. 

Carrying water over is based on individual business needs and license types. Not all licences allow for water to be carried over.

This water is considered ‘un-used’, but that doesn’t mean it is available for re-allocation. It is still owned by the irrigator.

When water is allocated to irrigators by their state authority, it is up to individuals to determine how they use their water, based on their own business needs. Irrigators can: •	decide to trade their allocation to another water user buy an allocation off another water user and use that water for their farm, use some of their water, and then decide to save some water for the next season – this is called carryover or return their water to the allocation pool for re-allocation, if they cannot use it (some licence types limit whether water can be carried over). Not all water allocated to an irrigator is used. Some water is saved by individuals for the next water season—this means they have water in reserve. Carrying water over is based on individual business needs and license types. Not all licences allow for water to be carried over. This water is considered ‘un-used’, but that doesn’t mean it is available for re-allocation. It is still owned by the irrigator.

Water sharing, allocations and accounts – different systems

Bulk water sharing arrangements in the southern Basin are set by the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement, which provides the rules for sharing arrangements between NSW, Victoria and South Australia.

Each state has developed its own set of licences and rules around how to allocate the state’s share of water to their entitlement holders. This means allocations, water orders and delivery of water all work in a different way from state to state and will continue to do so.

Find out more about water sharing arrangements in the River Murray

The SDL water accounting system monitors water trends over the long-term, importantly this is not the system used for allocations, water sharing between the states, or daily river operations. 

The SDL water accounting system ensures states remain on-track over the long term regarding their water use and assists water managers to consider future trends and demands. The SDL accounting system does not focus on individual water users and water deliveries.

Find out more about sustainable diversion limits

Updated: 23 Jun 2020