Blog | 26th Jul, 2023

How the Vic government sabotaged the Basin Plan: A timeline

The Murray-Darling Basin is Australia’s largest river system – a vast network of interconnected rivers, wetlands and floodplains that covers much of south-east Australia. Managing the river requires the co-operation of the federal government and four states: NSW, QLD, South Australia and Victoria. But we’ve just released a damning new report that shows how successive Victorian governments have undermined the Basin Plan right from the start.

Scroll down to see how in this timeline and find out how you can take action to call out this behaviour!

The Basin Plan was supposed to restore the river system back to health. Instead, it’s been plagued by mismanagement and scandals. Big cotton farms diverting floodwaters into massive private dams. Allegations of water theft. First Nations promised water that has never been delivered.

But Victoria’s role in the saga of how the Murray-Darling has been robbed of water has largely gone unreported – until now …

2001 – 2009
The Millennium Drought devastates the Murray-Darling

It is one of the worst droughts in Australian history and highlights the devastating impact of taking too much water from the Murray-Darling. Riverbeds dry up, towns run out of water, and waterbird, fish and turtle populations plummet.

Heartbreaking: Marine tubeworms invaded the freshwater Lower Lakes of the Murray because they became so salty. These tubeworms attached themselves to the back of turtles, colonising them until they're so weighed down they drowned. Credit: K.F Walker via The Age


January 2007
John Howard announces a national plan to save the Murray-Darling

In a speech to the National Press Club, Prime Minister John Howard announces a plan to end over-allocation of water in the Murray-Darling “once and for all”. This would involve the Commonwealth taking over management of water in the Basin.

February – August 2007
Victoria refuses to support draft Commonwealth Water Act

All Basin states support the Commonwealth taking over management of the Murray-Darling – except for Victoria. For over a year, the Bracks government refuses to cooperate, draws out negotiations, and even threatens to sue the federal government!

Leaders urge Bracks to accept Murray-Darling plan


Only one state stands in the way of the Federal Government's plan to take control of the Murray-Darling Basin, with Victorian Premier Steve Bracks remaining opposed to the proposal.

August 2007
Water Act is passed, but more limited than Howard’s vision

The federal government finally passes the water act, but thanks to Victoria’s stubborn approach, it has a much narrower scope than what Howard had envisioned. For key sections to come into effect, there needs to be further cooperation from the states. Again, Victoria doesn’t make this easy …

March 2008
Victoria leverages the moment to get funding for expensive irrigator handouts

The Victorian government proposes the Foodbowl Modernisation Project – the first of many irrigation efficiency projects to come. The idea is to use taxpayer funding to upgrade irrigator infrastructure in the Goulburn-Murray region, ostensibly to save water. The government proposes the program despite a lack of evidence for water savings, no business case, and advice from the government’s own department that it should not be progressed.

Concerns raised over $1.1b irrigation project in northern Victoria

The Age

It is unclear how much water a massive $1.1 billion irrigation project in northern Victoria will save, experts say. A new independent report on the project – touted as the most significant irrigation upgrade in the state's history – also warns it is not expected to be delivered on time or on budget, based on current progress.

2008 – 2013
Water purchases start reviving the river

The Rudd-Gillard government begins buying water for the river – a “no regrets” strategy to urgently revive wetlands, birds and fish populations after the Millennium Drought. In this time, more than 1000 GL is set aside for the environment.

An Australasian bittern chick. It's one of the many bird species that rely on water being able to reach the wetlands of the Murray-Darling to survive. Credit: Simone Carmichael, DPE.

October 2010
Guide to the Basin Plan is released

It recommends recovering 3000 to 7,600 GL of water to restore the river to health. This lower number reflects “high uncertainty” for river health.


Victoria lobbies to reduce water targets 

Victoria consistently argues for water targets of just 2100 GL. They ignore official scientific recommendations and commission their own modelling (with notable omissions to skew the results) to fudge the numbers.



November 2012
Basin Plan is signed into law – with conditions  

The final Basin Plan sets a target of 3200 GL for the environment – significantly below what the best available science recommended.

Victoria also successfully gets an “adjustment mechanism” built into the Basin Plan. This aimed for 650 GL of the water target to be kept for irrigators with a promise that certain projects (water offset projects) will be able to achieve “similar” environmental outcomes using less water. The science behind this has still never been verified.

September 2015
Federal government stops straight-forward water purchases

With the support of the Victorian and NSW state governments, the federal Abbott government amends the Water Act to cap the amount of water that can be bought for the river at 1500 GL. Water recovery slows down dramatically.


NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell and Prime Minister Tony Abbott signing the agreement. Credit AAP

February 2018
Victoria and NSW threaten to leave the Basin Plan 

The Greens in the Senate try to block the federal government from reducing water targets even further. Victoria and NSW hold the Basin Plan ransom – threatening to leave if the federal Labor opposition supports the Greens. The Greens’ move is voted down.

States threaten to quit Murray-Darling Basin plan over water recovery target

The Guardian

New South Wales and Victoria are threatening to pull out of the Murray-Darling Basin plan if the Senate votes to knock out changes that would reduce the environmental water recovery target for the northern basin, raising the stakes on tomorrow’s vote.

December 2018
Victoria helps develop an unworkable “test” to limit water recovery

The so-called “socio-economic test” places strict limits on how water can be recovered for a specific 450 GL of the Basin Plan – an idea continually pushed by Barnaby Joyce. Victoria commissions its own research to justify this test, ignoring other modelling. 

December 2018 – January 2019
Thousands of Murray cod die in Menindee Lakes

It’s one of the most devastating disasters in the Murray-Darling and makes international headlines. A report later confirms it was due to too much water being extracted upstream. 


January 2019
South Australia Royal Commission into Basin Plan finds “gross maladministration” 

The report accuses the original water recovery targets in the Basin Plan of being driven by “politics rather than science”. It recommends a complete overhaul, including more water for the environment and the impacts of climate change to be considered.

Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission slams authority for 'maladministration'


The Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission has found Commonwealth officials committed gross maladministration, negligence and unlawful actions in drawing up the multi-billion-dollar deal to save Australia's largest river system.

August 2022
Report finds we can’t recover enough water with focus on efficiency projects 

With just 2 out of 450 GL recovered by mid 2022, the report finds irrigator infrastructure upgrades (off-farm efficiency projects) are too expensive and time consuming to deliver enough water by the deadlines. All other water recovery methods have been taken off the table thanks to the unworkable socio-economic test.

February 2023
Victoria and NSW double down on opposition to water purchases

With the new Albanese government signalling a change in water policy, the two state governments double down on opposition to water purchases – instead pushing to extend the deadline of offset projects.

March 2023
Second mass fish kill on the Darling-Baaka in 5 years

It’s the largest mass fish kill yet – and even more shockingly in a wet year. It’s because of too much water being taken out of the river. Without natural flows, too much organic matter built up on the floodplain and washed into the river all at once with the floods. Fish suffocated in this black water.


July 2023
Environment Victoria report shows 140 species at risk of extinction in Victoria without more water 

The report shows the impacts of the Victorian government’s inaction on the Basin Plan – 48 animals and 92 plants at serious risk of extinction. The report calls for Victoria to stop blocking action and support buying the vital water rivers and wildlife need.

Murray-Darling basin environmental flows found to be key to saving 140 species at risk of extinction

The Guardian

“This report reveals the shocking truth that by denying water to the rivers and wetlands of the Murray-Darling, the Andrews government is increasing the likelihood that 140 threatened species will become extinct,” said the chief executive of Environment Victoria, Jono La Nauze.

July 2023
MDBA says Basin Plan cannot be delivered by June 2024 deadline

Thanks to years of delays and mismanagement from our governments, the MDBA announces we’re way behind on water recovery. Rivers and wetlands are still 750 billion litres short of the water promised. With another drought just around the corner, it’s the worst possible time to be depriving rivers and wildlife of the water they need.


What now? Say sorry on Victoria's behalf

For more than a decade, the Victorian government has undermined the national plan to save Australia’s largest river system – the Murray-Darling Basin.

We think it’s about time they fessed up to this and issued an apology to the other states. So we’ve written it for them. Could you add your name and send this apology to water ministers in other states, asking them to hold Victoria to a higher standard?

This message comes at a critical time. Right now, state and federal governments are negotiating how to deliver water for rivers promised in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. By calling out these tactics, we hope they won’t be repeated this time around because other states will be able to recognise them and push back.

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