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Water Series: Northern Basin Review

Water policy is one of the most complicated and technical aspects of our policy portfolio. There are so many players and layers of rules and regulations which ultimately define access to water for productive purposes – particularly in the Murray Darling Basin.

Here at Australian Farmers, we're putting together a series of frequently asked questions on water policy.

Today we take a look at the Murray Darling Basin Plan, and in particular, the Northern Basin Review, which is currently in its final stages.

The Murray-Darling Basin and the Basin Plan

The Murray Darling Basin is vast.

At over 1 million square kilometres it is an area that captures 14% of the Australian land mass. In a country as climatically diverse and variable as Australian, it is only natural that the environmental, economic and social conditions differ considerably across the Basin.

The northern Basin differs from the south in that it is drier and much flatter.  A summer dominant rainfall pattern persists in the north producing falls lower, and more inconsistent, than those of the south. Year to year variability in rainfall and flows is also greater than in the south.

The Basin Plan and the Northern Basin Review

Among other things, the Basin Plan sets the overall limit on the amount of water that can be taken for consumptive use.  This limit seeks to balance the needs of communities and irrigated agriculture while providing water for the Environment.  For surface water, the Basin Plan determined that 2,750 GL/y would need to be recovered from the 2009 baseline diversion level (BDL).

In striking the Basin Plan in 2012, recovery target of 390 GL was set for the Northern Basin.  However, at the time, it was acknowledged that our understanding of environmental conditions in the Northern Basin needed to be improved.  So, in finalising the plan, the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MBDA) agreed to do further research and investigations on the northern Basin to establish if there was a case for changing the 390 GL recovery amount.  This further research is known as the Northern Basin Review.

The Northern Basin Review began in 2013, with the aim to:

  • Improve information on how to achieving environmental outcomes and social and economic costs and benefits for different diversion limits
  • Make recommendations about possible improvements to Basin Plan settings in the northern Basin
  • Provide advice on how best to recover the remaining target for environmental water.

The Northern Murray Darling Basin (image: Murray-Darling Basin Authority)

What are the key elements?

The review comprises several projects to gain the important information needed.

  • Environmental science program: will help better understand the needs of birds, fish and plants in the Barwon–Darling and Condamine–Balonne river systems. Including new research and review this is helping fill in knowledge gaps about environmental water needs, to see if environmental outcomes can be delivered, using less water.
  • Social and economic assessment: will look at how recovering water from different parts of the river system is likely to affect communities and industries. This will involve an assessment on irrigated agriculture and rural towns and an Aboriginal sociocultural survey to find out about the importance of environmental water to northern Aboriginal Nations.  Detailed socio-economic analysis of 21 communities has been conducted.
  • Updated water recovery modelling: this will involve hydrological modelling to get a better understanding of how often environmental water needs can be met under different Basin Plan settings.

What is the process from now for the Northern Basin?

The Australian Government has already recovered 278GL of water for the environment in the Northern Basin.

The finalisation of the Northern Basin Review is eagerly awaited and the final results are expected to be released soon.   It is anticipated that the MDBA will make a decision on its recommendation for a new SDL for the Northern Basin in mid-October. 

Ultimately, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Hon Barnaby Joyce in consultation with the Water Ministers from the Basin States, will make the final decision.  This decision will then have to be accepted by the Australian Parliament as a formal amendment to the Basin Plan.

After the MDBA makes its decision in mid-October, and before the finalisation of the amendments to go before the Parliament, there will be a period of formal public consultation for at least 8 weeks.

Stay tuned to Australian Farmers over the coming weeks.  We’ll be bringing you more info, stories and policy ideas about the Northern Basin.  Once the public consultation starts, will be posting information about how you can get involved and have your say.

We need to strike the right balance between the environment and socio-economic concerns of the northern Basin is essential so as to ensure community confidence in the long term success of the Basin Plan.

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