The mighty Murray – and the rivers that flow into it – are struggling to survive. In 2016 the Murray turned putrid green from an algal bloom for over 1,000km from Albury to Mildura and the Darling dried up altogether for 500 km from Wilcannia to Wentworth.
The problem is we take too much water out of our rivers, and it has terrible consequences. Here in Victoria, 75 percent of our wetlands have disappeared, native fish numbers have dropped by 90 percent and our unique red gum forests are struggling to survive. Something has to change.
Fortunately the problem was recognised by none other than former Prime Minister John Howard himself. On Australia Day 2007, at the height of the Millennium drought, he announced a $10 billion national plan for water security. ‘The old way of managing the Murray-Darling Basin has reached its use by date’ he said ‘The tyranny of incrementalism and the lowest common denominator must end’.
After several years of hard work, negotiation and controversy, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was finally agreed between Victoria, NSW, South Australia and Queensland and passed by the Commonwealth Parliament in 2012. It mandates the return of 2,750GL of water from consumptive use to the environment by 2019, with a provision for an additional 450GL to be returned in 2024.
Is it enough to fix the problems of the Murray? Not altogether, but if the Basin Plan is fully implemented it will make a huge difference to fish species and waterbirds and will allow for at least some flooding of the red gum forests and wetlands. To date around 1,950 GL of water have been recovered for the environment and the benefits can already be seen.
Is it plain sailing from here? Absolutely not! While the partner governments remain committed to implementing the Basin Plan ‘on time and in full’ there are big differences between them on what that actually means. The Plan allows for the volume of water recovery to be changed so long as ‘equivalent’ environmental outcomes are achieved, and there is a strong push from upstream states to reduce the 2750GL target by a significant amount. Only South Australia is fully committed to the extra 450GL for the environment.
The Basin Plan is also consistently undermined and misrepresented by interest groups and politicians. It is used as a convenient scapegoat for every ill affecting irrigated agriculture from rising water prices to job losses and faltering communities. Environmental water recovery is getting harder and harder and despite the comforting words of Ministers it has slowed to a trickle.
While the Plan is undoubtedly having an impact on some communities, it is bringing $13 billion of investment into regional Australia to make irrigation more sustainable. It’s the biggest investment in the future of agriculture in Australia’s history. Even more importantly the Plan is improving the health of the rivers on which we all depend. It is in all our interest to see it succeed.
We are working hard with partner groups to ensure the Basin Plan delivers on its promise. It’s the best chance we have to improve the health of the mighty Murray and with your help we’ll make sure it succeeds.