Blog | 7th Dec, 2023

Finally, a lifeline for the Murray-Darling! The Restoring Our Rivers bill explained

The federal government has just passed new legislation to finally get more water for the rivers, wetlands, fish and water birds of the Murray-Darling!

The ‘Restoring Our Rivers’ Bill delivers a vital lifeline for the river ahead of looming drought – and it’s thanks to thousands of Australians across the Basin speaking up and demanding action.

Here’s what the legislation means and why it’s such a big deal.

Get the details

Why is this important?

We know the rivers of the Murray-Darling are in trouble. In the last decade, we’ve seen mass fish kills, toxic algal blooms and whole towns run dry.

It’s because too much water is being taken out of the river for irrigation, and there’s not enough left to sustain all the wildlife and communities that depend on it.

This is the core problem the Basin Plan was meant to address, by ensuring enough water would be set aside to keep the river healthy and flowing all the way from the source to the sea. But dodgy political deals and delays have slowed progress to a grinding halt – and our rivers have paid the price.

The federal government’s new ‘Restoring Our Rivers’ Bill aims to get us back on track. And thanks to huge public pressure from river communities, including farmers, irrigators, First Nations leaders and environmental groups, the legislation has now passed with crucial changes to deliver more for rivers and First Nations!

It’s the biggest win we’ve had in the Murray-Darling for years. Here’s what you need to know:

1. Water can be bought for the environment again

Since 2015, governments have ruled out using the most effective and affordable method to get water for rivers – buying it from people who want to sell. Instead, they’ve favored expensive efficiency projects and irrigation upgrades. These have failed to deliver enough water and very little progress has been made on the Basin Plan as a result.

This new legislation allows the federal government to finally start buying water for the river again. Read more about how water buybacks work in this blog >>

2. It passed with the support of the Greens and crossbench 

When the government first announced its legislation in September, we raised concerns that it didn’t go far enough. There were no guarantees that water would get to rivers and wetlands in the next few years, and First Nations were completely left out of the legislation.

Together with our allies in NSW, SA and QLD, we called on the government to strengthen the legislation. This public pressure helped the Greens and crossbench to negotiate a much better deal. It passed with the support of the Greens, and Independent Senators David Pocock, Lidia Thorpe, Jacqui Lambie and Tammy Tyrell.

It’s important to note that the legislation had support from every Basin state government except Victoria, who sided with the irrigation lobby to oppose it. Read more here >>

3. It ensures that 450 billion litres of water promised for the environment will be delivered by 2027

This 450 billion litres of water was promised in the Basin Plan and is absolutely vital to the health of the river system. However, under the previous Coalition government, a bogus “socio-economic test” was developed to limit how water could be recovered. It’s meant that to date, just 3% of this water has been set aside for rivers.

This legislation removes this huge roadblock with a thoughtful process: considering socio-economic impacts, recovering water for rivers where it’s most effective, and supporting communities with targeted funding. While the legislation delays the deadline (from 2024 to 2027) it also makes sure we can’t continue to kick the can down the road.

3. There are crucial improvements for First Nations water rights

The Murray-Darling is home to over 40 First Nations – yet they own just 0.2% of the water and have little say in how water is managed.

Thanks to powerful advocacy from the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN) and First Peoples across the Basin, the Greens and Independent Senator Lidia Thorpe were able to secure changes in the legislation to begin to address these injustices.

Along with increased funding for Aboriginal water entitlements, there is also a pathway for First Nations to have a much greater say over how their waterways are managed and a mandate to consider whether the Water Act is consistent with the principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Read more in Lidia Thorpe’s media release here >>

4. It opens the door to more flows in the Darling-Baaka

The Darling-Baaka has been devastated by massive fish kills in the last few years. But little has been done to make sure the river has enough water to stop these disasters happening again.

The government has opened the door to allow additional water recovery for the Darling-Baaka. However, we still have many questions about how this will happen. We’ve learnt the hard way that the devil is in the details when it comes to water management! 

5. We’ll get an independent audit of water recovery so far

We need a clear picture of how much water has been set aside for the river — and whether or not projects have delivered what they’ve promised. An independent audit is a no-brainer to help us get back on track.

6. There’s new powers to cancel dodgy water ‘offset’ projects

These projects were cooked up by NSW and Victorian state governments as a way to avoid having to actually return water to the environment. The idea behind them is that parts of the river, like wetlands and lakes, can be engineered to use less water – and that these infrastructure projects can then “offset” unsustainable extraction. This dodgy scientific method has been slammed by experts and never actually tested in the real world.

This new legislation means the federal government can cancel projects that don’t stack up, with the disastrous Menindee Lakes project likely the first to go. We’ll also be pushing for greater scrutiny of the nine wetland engineering projects currently proposed in Victoria. Read more here >>

Making our voices heard!

These are crucial wins for the environment – and only possible because thousands of Australians came together to push for change. Across state lines, in the city and country, and up and down the river. Read some of their stories here >>

From left: Gamilaraay/Wirri/Anaiwan woman Polly Cutmore and Ngarrindjeri/Kaurna Senior Elder Major Moogy Sumner; Gary and Leanne Hall, graziers in the Macquarie Marshes NSW; Glora Jones, a fisher from Clayton Bay SA at our press conference in Canberra; Angela Clarke and friends at the Barwon River in Victoria

Years of grassroots action by Murray-Darling communities including farmers, irrigators, First Nations leaders and environmental groups made this possible, creating a pathway for a healthy river and First Nations water justice.

This moment shows our movement is powerful. To everyone who travelled to Canberra, shared their river story, signed a petition, emailed politicians, donated or supported on social media, thank you! 

The legislation rescues the Murray-Darling from dire straits, but we have a huge job ahead of us to secure the river’s long-term health. The Basin Plan will be reviewed in a few years, and we’ll be pushing a bigger, bolder plan that matches the scale of the problem. 

Together, we’ll continue building our movement, holding our government accountable and standing by our rivers.

Stories from across the Basin