Disputes over water in the Murray Darling Basin have existed since before Federation with states jostling for various rights, agreements and protections. Fast-forward a hundred years or so, and you could be forgiven for thinking not much has changed – but it has.

Following major reforms through the nineties and the 2004 National Water Initiative, the Basin Plan was signed into law in late 2012 (with bipartisan support). The Plan is a landmark agreement that seeks to sustainably share finite water resources across jurisdictions and between competing uses. The development and structure of the Plan reflects that system health was declining over time, putting all uses at risk. It is an ambitious initiative to make progress on an inherently vexed issue and, while being imperfect, it is a major step toward improved water resource management in the Basin. However, now at the pointy end of implementation, tensions are resurfacing as states tussle over outstanding water recovery amounts and mechanisms.  

At this time, it is important to understand that the Basin Plan was never intended to be an inflexible ‘all or nothing’ commitment. The Basin Plan is an adaptive framework that was built on compromise. Given the recent disallowance vote, and political debate surrounding the Plan, it is worth considering what the alternative is. Would we be better off back at square one with no common goals and no guiding structure?

The answer is undoubtedly, no.

This sentiment has been reflected in the quotes from both irrigation and conservation organisations (see quotes below). These examples both point to the need for compromise and the damage caused by uncertainty surrounding the Plan’s future.

Whatever happens next, the best prospect for resolution lies in operating within the framework provided by the Plan. Dismantling the Plan would leave all states and stakeholders diminished. Tony Burke’s conciliatory tone following the recent disallowance vote in the Senate provides some confidence that there remains a pathway towards continued cooperation and implementation of the Basin Plan.