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Developing the Basin Plan

Over the years, the combination of natural droughts and increasing human use of the waterways for agriculture, manufacturing and communities has led to a decline in the health of the Murray–Darling Basin. Governments and communities of south-eastern Australia have long grappled with the complex issue of sharing the water of the Basin.

History of water management in the Basin

The Murray–Darling Basin is rich in history – it has been home to more than 40 First Nations for thousands of years, it was one of the first areas of Australia explored by early settlers and its most precious resource, water, has been managed for decades.

It took the severe federation drought (1895 to 1902) to bring the states together to start to agree on the management of the Murray. A conference in Corowa in 1902 provided the catalyst, eventually resulting in the River Murray Waters Agreement commencing in 1915 by the governments of New South Wales (NSW), Victoria, South Australia and the Australian Government. The formation of the River Murray Commission followed in 1917.

The economic value of the Basin's water resources for agriculture and industry led to the development of a highly regulated river system, not only on the River Murray, but throughout the Basin. With increased regulation and surface water extraction, together with a severe drought in the late 1960s, environmental impacts were starting to emerge. Water quality had deteriorated to the point that the first benchmark study of salinity took place in 1970.

From the 1970s through to the 1990s, state governments undertook initiatives to sustainably manage land and water, however the interconnected nature of the rivers of the Basin was much better understood than 100 years earlier. An intergovernmental approach was needed and in 1987 the first Murray–Darling Basin Agreement was reached, which established the Murray–Darling Basin Commission (MDBC).

Leading up to the new millennium, there was significant progress in the reform of water sharing, including the development of water markets and salinity management, however the fundamental issue of too much water being used remained. In parallel with the first River Murray Agreement, a significant drought (the millennium drought from the late 1990s to 2010 in much of the Basin) exposed the limits and weaknesses of how water in the Basin was managed and highlighted the need for continuing reform.

With time, it was recognised that too much water was being used by communities and industries, and the environment was suffering.

A new approach to water management

The Water Act 2007

In 2007, Prime Minister John Howard announced a $10 billion plan to improve water efficiency and to address over allocation of water for rural Australia. He declared,'For this plan to work, there must be clear recognition by all – especially by state and territory governments – that the old way of managing the Basin has reached its use by date'.

The response of the Australian Government in 2007 was the passing of the Water Act 2007 (Cth), with bi-partisan support in the Australian Parliament. As a requirement of the Water Act, the Murray–Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) was setup and required to develop the Basin Plan, with the primary objective of limiting how much water could be used by industries and communities in the Basin.

The Basin Plan (2012)

In 2012, there was widespread agreement across government that a plan was needed to manage our water carefully and protect the Basin for future generations. The Basin Plan was developed to manage the Basin as a whole connected system.

The aim of the Basin Plan is to bring the Basin back to a healthier and sustainable level, while continuing to support farming and other industries for the benefit of the Australian community.

At its heart, the Basin Plan sets the amount of water that can be taken from the Basin each year, while leaving enough for our rivers, lakes and wetlands and the plants and animals that depend on them.

The development of the Plan required several years of research and analysis to understand how much water could be taken from the Basin for consumptive use, without compromising our rivers, lakes and wetlands and the animals and plants that depend on them.

The science behind the Plan was independently reviewed by Australian and international scientists.

The Plan also took into account a wide range of social and economic information. It became apparent that the reduction in water availability for human use would have an impact on communities, businesses and industries in the Basin. Analysis of the social and economic effects was conducted by the MDBA and other commissioned experts, to help achieve the best balance between water users, communities and the environment. So a plan was developed, in consultation with Basin communities, to manage the Basin as a whole connected system.

The Commonwealth Minister responsible for water adopted the Basin Plan on 22 November 2012 and on 29 November 2012 it received bipartisan support in Parliament.

The aim of the Basin Plan is to bring the Basin back to a healthier and sustainable level, while continuing to support farming and other industries for the benefit of the Australian community. It is complementary to other water management arrangements, including natural resource management and other Commonwealth and state government policies.

The future of the Basin Plan

A cornerstone of the strategy for managing water resources in the Basin is adaptive management – ‘learning as you go’ by trialling techniques, monitoring, and making changes as needed.

Water managers must be flexible and dynamic to ensure the best possible outcomes are achieved. This is the modern way of managing natural resources.

Adaptive management allows governments and communities to adjust their approach in response to current climatic conditions, new information and local knowledge when planning for the future.

Regular 10 yearly reviews of the Basin Plan are required, which allow for emerging climate change patterns, new information, tools and techniques to be considered. These reviews could result in changing water limits or other water management arrangements. The first review will be conducted in 2026.

Updated: 20 Dec 2021