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The Murray River in 2007, at the height of the drought. Hopefully it will be more resilient next time around. Scott Davis/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

As drought looms, the Murray-Darling is in much healthier shape – just don’t get complacent

Melbourne Cup Day is a significant day in the history of water policy in Australia. The first Tuesday in November 2006 saw the then Prime Minister John Howard intervene decisively in the growing drought crisis in the southern Murray-Darling Basin (MDB).

Nine years on, the spectre of drought is back. The Murray Darling Basin Authority’s weekly reports show inflows into the River Murray (which can be seen as a proxy for the southern MDB) during the year to end September 2015 were the among the lowest on record. And the Bureau of Meteorology’s National Climate and Water Briefing last week suggests a warm and dry summer in prospect in the southern MDB, amid a still strengthening El Niño.

Yet there are reasons to believe that these past nine years of stronger Commonwealth involvement have left the MDB much better placed to withstand an escalating drought.

That said, there is no room for complacency, and continuing Commonwealth commitment is still needed if those hard-won gains are to be retained.

Turning the tide

Thanks to the Water Act 2007 and the Basin Plan 2012, we now have much deeper understanding of the MBD’s water resources, as well as better governance and planning.

For decades, more and more water was being diverted away from the basin’s rivers and extracted from its aquifers. The Howard government’s leadership, and the subsequent Labor governments’ maintenance of these plans, helped to put the brakes on that by creating a large Commonwealth portfolio of “environmental water” which has been purchased from irrigators.

Over the past four years nearly 4,000 gigalitres (about eight Sydney Harbours) of Commonwealth environmental water have been delivered to different parts of the MDB. This has kept the River Murray’s mouth open for longer, ensuring more disposal of salt out to sea, and has helped to partly restore the Lower Lakes and Coorong after the last drought.

This means that, with another drought in prospect, the environment has at least had a chance to take a breath and partially recover, and that some environmental water will still be available over the coming year.

Water markets have now also become fully operational, making it easier for irrigators and other water users (including the environment) to manage their valuable water entitlements, and to trade these entitlements if necessary.

Meanwhile, billions of dollars have been invested in modernising irrigation infrastructure in the MDB to help irrigators use water more efficiently in the future, and funds have been made available to help landowners rationalise unproductive and inefficient irrigation infrastructure. The next drought will help us assess how successful this has been.

Hopefully we won’t let it get into this state again. AAP Image/Larine Statham

The flow of information about the MDB has improved, too. The Bureau of Meteorology now provides better, more timely information to all river operators, water users and policy makers around Australia. Up-to-date storage data and accurate forecasts of rainfall and streamflow help irrigators make better business decisions. It is critical that the investments be sustained in coming years.

The Basin Plan also provides assurance for communities that depend on the River Murray system for their human water needs. Under the plan, if critical water shortages emerge, these communities will be given the highest priority. Adelaide’s new desalination plant (arguably far larger than needed!) will further bolster the city’s water security, as it can deliver more than three-quarters of demand. And Canberra’s Cotter Dam upgrade can store the equivalent of more than a year’s water demand.

Still more to do

The Basin Plan requires states to put in place 36 compliant regional water resource plans in the MDB. These are long overdue - much progress has been made in the past nine years, but the states need to ensure that this project is completed as soon as possible.

Water extractions limits (called sustainable diversion limits) will need to be reduced to ensure that they are sustainable even before climate is considered, but this measure has already been delayed until 2019 as a part of a deal with the states to make the Basin Plan.

Full action on climate change in the basin has also been put off until 2022. This will need to be reassessed as a matter of urgency once 2022 rolls around.

The Commonwealth now plays a far more significant and effective role than it did nine years ago, and is now very much a partner in managing the MDB as a whole, along with the states and basin communities. As Parliamentary Secretary for Water at the time nine years ago, our new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull well understands how quickly the water outlook in the southern MDB can deteriorate (see chart below).

Water levels for Hume and Dartmouth. Bureau of Meteorology

The Murray-Darling Basin has much more of a safety net today than it did in November 2006, so we are not facing crisis. But there is no room for complacency – effectively caring for our scarce water resources continues to be essential, and it needs to be done on a basin-wide basis rather than with the interests of a particular state or industry in mind.

But hopefully, what began in earnest almost a decade ago can be a continuing example of how to look after a regional economy, communities and the environment.

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