Right. Sit up straight. Pay attention. If you’re like me, you barely made it past the title of the page. I know it’s important for farmers and wildlife and, well, everything, but every time someone starts talking about water management policy my eyes glaze over.

Let’s go through this together. Australia’s economy and environment are at stake. I’m not kidding – the Murray Darling Basin is a big deal. This issue will inform the next election. And because this issue has so many stakeholders,  doesn’t move fast, and doesn’t come with great video footage, it’s frequently slipped off the news. Nevertheless, the Murray Darling Basin Plan has already almost wiped out entire communities like Dirranbandi in Queensland, and could disrupt Australia’s entire system for water management.

Let’s begin with introductions.

Meet the Murray-Darling Basin
The Murray-Darling Basin is Australia’s kitchen sink. It’s a little over a million square kilometres large and has a whole bunch of rivers connected to it. It drains around one-seventh of Australia’sland mass and represents a third of our total agricultural production. It stretches across Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and the ACT.

So who owns all of that water? The State governments? The Federal government? The farmers? Indigenous people? The wildlife and fauna that thrive off the system?
That quagmire has been one of the longest-lasting political headaches in recent Australian political memory, and there’s been almost no time for a Panadol and a lie down. In one of the driest countries on earth, the Murray-Darling Basin is incredibly important to Australia’s welfare. As has been demonstrated in recent years, if legislation around the Murray-Darling Basin is knocked too far in one direction or another, it causes chaos.
How We Got To Now
The Millennium Drought triggered then Prime Minister John Howard to draw up the ‘Water Act’ in 2007. This meant that ten billion dollars went towards a decade-long consultation and negotiation process to reach a national agreement on water use in the Murray-Darling. Basically, the government had been over-generous in its supply of water licenses. When the drought hit, the basin became a lot more dry. There was a need to get water back into the environment.
In 2012, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was signed by Prime Minister Julia Gillard. It wanted to remove 2,750 gigalitres of water from agriculture and put it back into the system. This time last year, about 2,000 gigalitres had made its way back into the system through government infrastructure improvements and by re-purchasing water licenses. Hoorah.
But that’s not nearly the end of the story.
Buggering Up The Basin
Who would have thought? Things haven’t gone smoothly.
In July of last year, an ABC Four Corners report on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan stirred a hornet’s nest of corruption allegations, triggering the federal government to host an interstate review of the entire plan. Most scathingly, there were allegations of water theft by some farmers, and evidence of tampering with meters to mask how much water farmers were pumping back into the system.
When the review reported back in November of last year, it found that New South Wales and Queensland struggled to comply with the plan due to low resourcing and staffing. Australian Conservation Foundation Director of Campaigns, Dr Paul Sinclair said the report proved that NSW and QLD river compliance was “basically non-existent”. A seperate, internal report from the NSW Government found that NSW’s compliance was ineffectual and required significant and urgent improvement.
The big review had some key recommendations. It put the ball back in the court of the State governments to review their processes and eventually publish their compliance strategies by mid 2018.
In the meantime, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is still controversial. Many farmers say it’ll be their undoing – and there’s economic modelling to back that up. But environmentalists say the basin is under severe threat of imminent collapse and needs more water, not less.
The Key Issues
There are three key decisions that currently face the Federal and State governments.
The first is whether to accept the recommendation of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to reduce the amount of water going to the environment in Northern parts of the basin. So far, removing water from agriculture has proven to be devastating for ultra-dependent communities like Dirranbandi, Queensland and Collarenebri, New South Wales.
The second is whether the State governments will finalise a bunch of major infrastructure projects designed to deliver water back to the environment more effectively and efficiently in the southern end of the basin. This would allow the Plan to reach its ultimate goal of 2,750 gigalitres faster.
The third is whether the original Plan is amended to demand more water be returned to the Basin. This is more pressure on farmers, but South Australia and the federal Labor Party (and scientists) are adamant: the positive environmental impact that the plan is aiming for can’t be achieved without more water than the plan currently sets out.
Where Are We Now
The Plan is a hot potato in Parliament right now, made all the more problematic by the farmer’s key champion – Barnaby Joyce – likely to resign any minute.
There is now a threat that the Plan could collapse entirely as the state and federal government spit the dummy at each other. Last week, the Labor Party dug their heels in and joined forces with the Greens, vowing to stop the Government’s plans to move forward on that first decision listed above: to reduce the amount of water going back into the environment in the Northern part of the basin.
Federal Labor say they aren’t satisfied with the numbers. The original report that the decision was based upon apparently didn’t take into account allegations of water theft, concerns of the Indigenous community or a handful of other factors. It’s hard to say if many people are buying that. Both Victorian Labor and NSW Liberal & National Governments are pissed with Federal Labor standing in the way, and water ministers from both States have called it a rejection of scientific advice. The National Farmers Federation say that Federal Labor are likely to cost jobs by playing politics. NSW has said they’re considering pulling out of the plan entirely. Mind you, many of the NSW ministers involved in the State’s primary industries over the last few years are under investigation by the Independent Commission against Corruption (that’s a whole other blog). Just one drop in a mighty river of claims of mismanagement, incompetence and corruption on all sides of this fight.
The decision is currently resting in the Senate. That piece of the puzzle will go through this week, but the Plan will remain a contentious piece of legislation for at least 2018. Slow News Weekly will keep you up to date.

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