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.
“The Basin Plan is the envy of the water-scarce world. When I speak with freshwater scientists around the world, they marvel at the very difficult water reforms undertaken by successive Australian Governments and continue to look upon the Basin Plan as a world-leading initiative” Gilmore also said that more needs to be done to keep the Plan on track: “The Basin Plan has serious problems with implementation, regulation and enforcement including well-documented allegations of water theft and mismanagement. But these problems are solvable: bipartisan action to urgently address these problems, combined with new innovations in water sharing can restore confidence in the Plan.” – Rich Gilmore, Country Director (Australia), The Nature Conservancy. …the Basin Plan was “a rare national consensus” to deliver better water management which was being harmed by disruption. “Our environmental and commercial water users cannot develop long term objectives, nor decide rural investment options when the body set up to deliver water reform is being undermined.” – Phil Snowden, Chair, Murray Irrigation