Blog | 27th Feb, 2023

We can’t save the Murray-Darling without water buybacks – here's what you need to know

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The Murray-Darling Basin Plan was meant to save our largest river system – stopping too much water being taken away, so enough is left for wetlands, waterbirds and fish to survive.

But since 2015 our governments have refused to use the cheapest, most reliable and effective way to set water aside for rivers: buying water from people who want to sell it.

Instead, they’re relying on dodgy infrastructure projects that can’t deliver the water our rivers need. It’s an approach meant to benefit a few big irrigators more than our rivers.

So what exactly are water buybacks? We’ve put together answers to your most frequently asked questions:

What are water buybacks?

Water buybacks are an important way to make sure the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin have water.

It involves the government buying “water entitlements” – the right to take a certain volume of water from the river each year – from people who want to sell them. By buying these water rights, the government can ensure water stays in the river and flows to the places and animals that need it most.

This was the key purpose of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan: to stop too much water being taken out of our rivers, so there’s enough left for wetlands, waterbirds and fish to survive.

Water bought through an open-tender process accounts for the vast majority (around 60%) of the water so far recovered for rivers through the Plan.

How do buybacks benefit rivers?

For decades, too much water has been taken from the rivers of the Murray-Darling, pushing them to the brink of collapse. Buying water back is the cheapest, most reliable and effective way to get our rivers the water they need to survive.

When the government buys back water, it is used to benefit the environment. This water is released from dams or flows freely to give river red gums, turtles, fish and other wildlife the vital water they need, when they need it. For example, it can be used to flood wetlands and help waterbirds breed or pushed down the river at the right time to help native fish spawn.

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The Basin Plan set a target of recovering 3,200 billion litres of environmental water. This is less than half of what scientists said was needed to give our rivers a good chance of survival [1] – but a huge step forward from the even weaker target powerful irrigators lobbied for.

Unfortunately, the Basin Plan is way off track. With just a few years left before the Plan is reviewed, we’re nowhere close to meeting the target. Unless we recover water, using methods we know work like buybacks, our whole river system is at risk.

Call on the Victorian government to support plans to purchase vital for our rivers >>

Is the government buying water now?

The federal government quickly stopped buying water when the Abbott government came to power and put a legislated limit on how much water could be purchased in 2015. This was a political decision – not one based on science.

Water set aside for the environment was already benefitting wetlands and coming to the rescue during toxic blackwater events, saving Murray cod from suffocation. But the Coalition government chose to ignore this, pivoting instead to slow and untested methods for water recovery.

The Coalition’s approach was based on a powerful scare campaign run by the corporate agriculture lobby, who have been undermining the Basin Plan since the beginning — aiming to keep more water in the accounts of big irrigators. It blamed water buybacks and the Basin Plan more generally for the complex challenges rural communities were facing.

Issues of increasing risk profiles for farms, challenging commodity prices and struggling social services in regional communities are serious, long-term issues. If we’re serious about addressing them we need to ask: what is the best way to do right by regional communities and provide a healthy, flowing river? We can do this by buying water, while also supporting greater investment in regional communities through policies that are designed and led by locals.

But with the irrigation lobby successfully keeping buybacks off the table, there aren’t any cost-effective options left for returning water to the river. For the irrigation lobby, this is precisely the point.

Despite the many farmers willing to sell water, the only remaining options involve inflated handouts for irrigators, secret deals and dodgy offset projects that would re-engineer wetlands on the Murray to survive with less water. It has been a shift to ‘paper water’ instead of the real thing.

For years, experts have agreed that restarting water buybacks is the most-effective way to get our rivers the water they need [2]. And with a new federal government, there’s a real chance to bring this solution back. But the Victoria and NSW governments are standing in the way – putting the interests of big corporate agribusiness above the need to protect a healthy river that can support us all.

How much cheaper are buybacks than other water recovery methods?

Buying water has proven to be the cheapest way to get water for rivers – much cheaper than giving big handouts to irrigators.

These handouts are designated for “efficiency projects.” Essentially, they’re subsidies to make water infrastructure more efficient, so some of the water savings can be given to the river. But they have BIG problems.

Most funding in the Basin has gone to “on-farm” efficiency projects, with irrigators (mostly large corporate agribusiness) [3] receiving $400,000 worth of subsidies on average. The price for water recovered through these projects is around three times higher per megalitre than buying it directly. [4] Studies also suggest the volume of water recovered is much lower than the government claims – which could make it 25 times more expensive! [5]

The Morrison government recently invested $1.3 billion into “off-farm” efficiency projects, which typically save water by improving channel infrastructure used by multiple irrigators. Analysis shows most of these projects have been wildly expensive and unable to recover enough water quickly enough. [6] Nature Conservation Council NSW called one project in the Murrumbidgee a “scandalous waste of taxpayers’ money”, with just 6.3GL of water for the environment costing more than eight times the market price.

How can water buybacks support regional communities?

For many farmers, buybacks have been a way to pay off long-term debts or free up funds to invest in their business by selling only a portion of their water. Across the Basin, economists have pointed out that buybacks have positive impacts on community spending. And that government-commissioned reports claiming a simplistic relationship between water use and farm production aren’t true.

In fact, each tender found an abundance of farmers willing to offer water for sale. Over the first 4 years of water buybacks, before the Abbott government came to power, every tender was oversubscribed. At points, the number of applications outstripped those accepted by wide margins. [7]

We know our climate is getting hotter and drier, with less water flowing into the rivers of the Murray-Darling. If we want good regional jobs AND a living river, we need to make water use more fair and less exploitative – and our governments need to start spending smarter.

Instead of wasting money on expensive efficiency projects, they should reintroduce buybacks while also supporting greater investment in regional communities through policies that are designed and led by locals. The government’s own socio-economic research showed that every dollar spent on health, education and community care services creates 4 times as many jobs as handouts for infrastructure projects. [8]

The solution?

Finally, we have a federal government that’s willing to get the Basin Plan back on track – reviving solutions like water purchases that we know actually work. The next few months will be critical to getting this across the line, but they can’t do it with Victoria standing in the way.

It’s clear Victoria’s position is way out of step with what’s needed to save the Murray-Darling. If our state government is going to shift, they’ll need to hear from thousands of Victorians like you – who care about and depend on healthy rivers.

Sign the petition now, calling on Premier Daniel Andrews and Water Minister Harriet Shing to stop standing in the way of water purchases that can save the Murray-Darling >>

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[1] MDBA, Guide to the proposed Basin Plan – Technical Background (2010) and 

[2] Professor Sarah Wheeler, Professor Jeff Connor, Professor Quentin Grafton, Professor Lin Crase and Professor John Quiggin, Submission to the Murray-Darling Basin’s Royal Commission

[3] Wheeler & Carmody, The rebound effect on water extraction from subsidising irrigation infrastructure in Australia (2020)

[4] Wheeler & Carmody, The rebound effect on water extraction from subsidising irrigation infrastructure in Australia (2020)

[5] John Williams et al., Missing in action: possible effects of water recovery on stream and river flows in the Murray–Darling Basin (2019)

[6] Australian Government, First Review of the Water for the Environment Special Account (2020) and

[7] The Australian National Audit Office, Restoring the Balance in the Murray-Darling Basin (2010-2011)

[8] Glyn Wittwer, Modelling variants of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in the context of adverse conditions in the Basin (2020). Commissioned by the Panel for the Independent Assessment of Social and Economic
Conditions in the Murray-Darling Basin

Header image: Erik Peterson