Review finds good progress but risks to success in Murray-Darling Basin Plan implementation

Good progress has been made on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan but some risks to its eventual success are in play, according to Productivity Commissioner Dr Jane Doolan.

Dr Doolan addressed a CEDA event in Melbourne to share insights and draft recommendations from the Productivity Commission Draft Report Murray-Darling Basin Plan: Five-year assessment, released in August. 

Completed under the Water Act, the five-year review provides an independent assessment of the effectiveness of the implementation of the basin as part of the statutory framework of the plan. The process undertaken by the Productivity Commission was very robust with plenty of opportunities for community consultation, Dr Doolan said. 

“The Murray-Darling Basin Plan aims to re-set balance in the Murray-Darling Basin between consumptive use and providing water for the environment to meet environmental objectives,” she said. 

“It sets up a range of new management arrangements to ensure sustainable water management across the basin within all the jurisdictions. 

“The plan, when it was made in 2012, set a new sustainable diversion limit which required the recovery of 2750 gigalitres of water back from consumptive use to be provided to the environment and that was to be done by June 2019.” 

In addition, she said two suites of projects – supply and efficiency projects – need to be delivered by 2024. 
Dr Doolan said despite many controversies and a lot of noise around the Basin, good progress has been made in some areas. 

“The first of that is in water recovery. Today almost 2000 gigalitres has been recovered and is being managed and held by environmental water holders,” she said. 

“And to a large extent that is a very large proportion of the water that is required by 2019.

“We think that’s really quite good progress.” 

She said environmental water management is another area where good progress is being made. 

“That water is all held by environmental water holders and they have a framework in place for managing it, they work together, they coordinate and they have been delivering,” she said.

“Over the last five years more than 750 environmental watering events have occurred across the Basin and we’re starting to see the beginnings of ecological improvement.

“The impact of that water use is positive.”

However, she said the impact of that water recovery has been mixed for communities. 

“In some areas there’s been little or no impact. In other areas there has been significant impact socioeconomically on those communities,” she said.  

Dr Doolan said the report had identified areas of concern where works needs to happen. One of those is water resource plans. 

“In many cases they are behind schedule. They have to be complete by June 2019 and there’s a lot of work still to happen, particularly in NSW which has a significant number of plans,” she said.  

The report’s authors were concerned that where plans require significant rule changes there’s not enough time for adequate community consultation including with traditional owners. They had therefore recommended where there are significant rule changes that extensions be put in place. 

She said there are also issues with a lack of a cohesive monitoring, reporting and evaluation framework and no agreed monitoring strategy. 

The final issue identified was one of compliance. Dr Doolan said during the review’s community consultations concerns had consistently been raised about allegations of water theft and compliance failures brought to light by a Four Corners program in 2017. 

The issue had rocked communities’ confidence in compliance, Dr Doolan said. 

“For us it will be a priority to examine compliance arrangements in 2023,” she said. 

“There are big challenges ahead not least of which is restoring the trust of the community in water resources management going forward.” 

She said the best way to restore confidence is to go back to the basics of good management. This means ensuring clear roles and responsibilities; effective processes for collaboration; transparency and accountability for decisions; meaningful community consultation; good reporting, monitoring and evaluation; and credible timeframes. 

“Progress has been made and we need to actually acknowledge that because it’s good progress. But the next five years are really challenging,” she said.

The report identified three areas of significant risk – supply measures, including constraints, efficiency measures and governance.

“In terms of the supply measures there’s 36 projects that Basin states are responsible for implementing. They’ve got to be completed by 2024 and if they don’t, then water recovery has to be made good,” Dr Doolan said. 

“So, there’s skin in the game here. However, those projects are very ambitious.”

She said the report made 35 draft recommendations, mostly around continuous improvement. Governance and funding issues must be resolved first.

She said many of the projects are interdependent along the Murray and they require an integrated approach to management. 

“There’s got to be a logical plan to this, logical sequencing, really good community engagement including with traditional owners and a key element of that will be having realistic timelines,” she said.  

The report also made a number of draft recommendations around governance. 

“The reality is Basin governments are accountable for land and water management. They can either make it work or they can stymie it. And they actually need to make it work,” Dr Doolan said. 

“They need to take the lead in implementing the Basin plan and go back to working as a collective to make that happen. They’ve done that before and they need to do it again.”

The report further recommended separating the two roles of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to avoid conflict as it acts as both an agent of governments and regulator. 

“These two roles have always been to some extent conflicted. They need to do both really well for the Basin plan to be successful, but they are increasingly conflicted, so for us they should be separated,” she said. 

Following her keynote address Dr Doolan joined a panel discussion with National Irrigators Council Chief Executive Officer, Steve Whan and Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations Executive Officer, Will Mooney.