Murray–Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), Media Release, 24 February 2023
Murray–Darling Basin water ministers met on Gadigal Land (Sydney) to discuss the impacts of flooding on catchments and communities, next steps to deliver the Basin Plan and opportunities to strengthen First Nations’ role in water management and ownership.
Most regions in the Murray–Darling Basin have experienced exceptional flooding in recent months, as the rivers of the northern and southern Basin combined to deliver the largest flow to the Murray Mouth for almost 50 years. Ministers acknowledged the impact of these floods, and commended the resilience shown by communities, industries and farmers.
Ministers asked the Murray–Darling Basin Authority to review the flood event in the River Murray system to identify, evaluate and recommend opportunities to further improve flood forecasting and management and to report back to the Ministerial Council.
The floods have reconnected the rivers with their floodplains and ecosystems have responded with fish spawning and bird breeding. Inflows to the River Murray were at the highest on record during November and December. Water storages in February are at 95% full Basin-wide.
Ministers noted the latest Bureau of Meteorology outlook, with the easing La Niña pattern pointing to drying conditions heading into autumn and winter – a reminder of the extremes of the Basin’s climate conditions.
As Chair of the Council, Minister Plibersek opened the meeting expressing her thoughts for communities that have been facing flooding across the Basin, and thanked river operators for their ongoing work during this time, particularly along the River Murray. The Minister reiterated her determination to deliver the Basin Plan.
Minister Plibersek noted that since the last Ministerial Council in October 2022 progress has been made in the Murray–Darling Basin – including long overdue reforms to the water market, delivering certainty to farmers and industry. Overdue water resource plans have now been submitted to the Murray–Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), and the Commonwealth has released a framework to guide strategic water purchase in order to bridge the remaining gap.
Ministers welcomed the advice of Mr Phil Duncan, Chair of the Basin Community Committee, on current challenges in the Basin including for First Nations people, and the Committee’s advice on the importance of setting a clear pathway for implementing the Basin Plan. Minister’s thanked Mr Duncan for his leadership of the Committee, noting his intention to step down from the role.
Managing the impacts of climate change
Ministers reiterated and acknowledged the long-term risk to the Basin’s water resources and communities posed by climate change.
They stressed the importance of water science and research to underpin effective Basin water resource management and to inform planning for the impacts of climate change. They noted that the MDBA will work with Basin jurisdictions and the CSIRO to develop Basin-scale climate information with further consideration to be given to methods and outputs as work progresses.
Delivering the Basin Plan
Ministers re-asserted their determination to deliver the Basin Plan in full and discussed a range of options to progress delivery.
They discussed that the Commonwealth has released a Strategic Water Purchase Framework for the remaining 49 gigalitres (GL) of bridging the gap water.
They noted that the Commonwealth re-iterated its determination to deliver the 450 GL per year of additional environmental water.
Ministers noted it is the Commonwealth’s position that delivering the Basin Plan will include the purchase of water so that all targets can be delivered, consistent with an approach of all options on the table.
They acknowledged that unprecedented droughts, severe floods and the global pandemic have compounded delays in delivering Basin Plan projects.
Ministers noted that New South Wales and Victoria are seeking 2 more years to deliver some supply measure projects, that are well advanced.
They noted that New South Wales and Queensland are seeking 2 more years to deliver the remaining Northern Basin Toolkit measures.
While a number of matters remain unresolved, Ministers tasked officials to develop a package, including accountability measures and work programs to deliver the Basin Plan in full, and to report to Ministers at the next meeting.
Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder Dr Simon Banks reported that the floods have provided an important opportunity for the rivers and wetlands to be rejuvenated. Water for the environment has been carefully managed to improve water quality and provide refuges where hypoxic blackwater was threatening native fish.
Waterbird breeding has been supported by environmental water to maximise breeding success. The environmental benefits of three consecutive wet years are proving a great foundation to build on, using water for the environment to support the resilience of rivers and wetlands for when dry times return.
First Nations’ Water
Ministers reaffirmed their commitment to the long-term reform and investment in First Nations’ water interests.
Ministers welcomed Mr Rene Woods, Nari Nari man and member of the Murray–Darling Basin Authority and the Committee on Aboriginal Water Interests. Mr Woods addressed the Council on the importance of water access and ownership in the ongoing efforts to improve the wellbeing and cultural connections of the Basin’s First Nations people.
Progress by each of the Commonwealth and Basin state jurisdictions was discussed. Ministers noted the ongoing work to develop a Closing the Gap target for Inland Waters, and that increasing First Nations water ownership will contribute to this target.
Minister Plibersek highlighted the approach taken by First Nations people to drive the agenda on a series of workshops and roundtables on land and water partnerships, noting that this approach provides First Nations with the ability to retain their own agency in these important conversations.
Ministers resolved to work together to engage First Nations peoples across the Basin on a range of issues, and that they will pursue opportunities to increase First Nations water holdings including through the creation of a land and water partnerships program.
It was agreed that the Commonwealth will work with Basin states and First Nations peoples on an implementation plan for the Commonwealth’s $40 million Aboriginal Water Entitlements Program.
Managing the River Murray
The critical importance of addressing the capacity of the River Murray System to meet water delivery needs was discussed, including the options presented in the Barmah Millewa Feasibility Study.
Ministers agreed on an annual work plan to progress the preferred suite of options to the next stage of the study and agreed $2.35 million to further develop and implement solutions. This would include expanding the current program of stakeholder engagement.
Ministers approved the 2023/24 Joint Venture Budget for River Murray operations and associated programs.
Trust and Transparency: water markets and compliance
Ministers noted the Australian Government’s significant investment of $36.6 million over four years to improve market functioning and governance, including the process for buyers and sellers to trade water licenses.
All Ministers signed a funding agreement to progress implementation of the Water Market Reform Roadmap to improve community trust and confidence in the Basin’s water markets, and to improve compliance in all jurisdictions.
Ministers received an update from the Hon. Troy Grant, Inspector-General of Water Compliance on his 3 priorities for 2022-2023 – trade enforcement, water resource plan compliance and building trust and confidence with Basin communities and water stakeholders.
The Ministerial Council will meet again mid-2023.