The best thing about the Murray-Darling plan? It’s a work in progress

Craig Knowles is ready and waiting for your submissions to the plan. AAP

Yesterday’s release of the proposed Basin Plan for managing the Murray-Darling represents a significant step towards managing one of Australia’s greatest natural assets. The key to the plan’s success will be its ability to adapt in reaction to evidence and to public opinion.

There is still much disagreement about the level of water restrictions that may be needed to secure a healthy waterway, and how these restrictions should be distributed. But there is an increasing consensus that a solid and meaningful Basin plan is needed, and should be put in place to secure the ecological (and thus economic) future of the Basin.

This is progress in the sense that any such an agreement has been a long time coming.

A complex system makes planning a difficult task

It is good to see that the plan attempts to set up a structure to account for water in the Basin. This reflects the efforts currently being made to generate water accounts across Australia.

Unfortunately the plan doesn’t take account of the impact of carbon pricing on land-use decision making. If these two major policy issues are not harmonised, they could possibly be a source of undesirable unintended consequences within the Basin.

It is extremely difficult to assess how willing irrigators and other farmers are to reconsider their options and actions, how rapidly they will respond to market signals, and how committed they are to achieving a more sustainable use of water resources. These are just some of the issues which will determine the outcomes in the Murray-Darling Basin.

These issues highlight the fact we are attempting to understand and manage a hugely complex system with much uncertainty around the “facts” we have at our disposal. This clearly suggests a precautionary approach is needed, particularly in dealing with the livelihoods of the thousands of families across the basin who will be affected by this proposed plan.

The plan also doesn’t take enough account of the expected impacts of climate change. This seems like an incredible omission in this era of extreme events, but it will no doubt be incorporated into the plan over the coming years in the spirit of “adaptive water management”.

A welcome willingness to adapt

Indeed, adaptive management is a key phrase which has been repeated in discussion of the plan. Adaptive management is based on the concept of flexibility and potential for change, and there is little doubt that this is the most sensible approach to take.

While many will argue that the proposed measures don’t go far enough to secure river health, establishing a framework to support water allocation decisions is a good step forward. If Craig Knowles – Chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority – means what he says about being adaptive, the plan can be changed when we get new evidence; not just now, but also over the seven years of its implementation.

One of the biggest mistakes made in the release of the earlier version of the plan was that most genuine stakeholders felt disenfranchised with the process. They thought their concerns were neglected by the Basin Authority and its experts.

Perhaps the fact that this release has been made first thing on a Monday morning rather than last thing on Friday afternoon is symbolic of the change in the approach being taken. While for some that may be trivial, it does indicate the plan released yesterday is in fact a proposed plan. Much commentary and criticism is expected, and maybe welcomed, before its final implementation.

In the next 20 weeks, speak up

Achieving ecological and hydrological integrity is the cornerstone of sustainable development. This is a principle that the people and the government of Australia have signed up to. The numbers presented in this report may be unlikely to secure these environmental goals as things stand at present. But the proposed plan puts in place an institutional arrangement for stakeholders to express their views, so that needs can be fairly addressed.

The proposed plan is a first step in the right direction, but it will stand or fall on the way that funds for water entitlements are used, the way that landholders respond to the changing opportunities ahead of them, and the openness with which Mr Knowles and his colleagues take on board the results of this 20 week consultation process.

Whatever our individual positions may be on the proposed plan, we all have 20 weeks to try and make our voices heard, to build on what has been announced, and to try and work together to secure a real future for the most important river system in the country.

Dr Sullivan has written extensively on water assessment and management, and is co-author of a recent book on Adaptive Water Management.