National Water Reform

The Murray Darling Basin Plan was signed by the Commonwealth Minister in November 2012, and is now a legal instrument under the 2007 Commonwealth Water Act.

The foundations for the Basin Plan were built on the National Water Initiative in 2004, the subsequent dedication of over $12 billion to the Australian government’s Water for the Future program, and the passing of the Commonwealth Water Act of 2007.

This was an impressive period of reform: a national agreement based on science, using market principles to secure property rights and trade those rights, and over $10 billion of taxpayer’s money to finance the restoration of the Murray Darling Basin to health.

To inform the development of this plan, in 2010 the Wentworth Group in association with other experts, produced an analysis of the options for achieving Sustainable Diversions in the Murray Darling Basin. It analyses environmental water needs for each of the 18 catchments, assesses the economic impact of achieving the required reduction, and argues that reform should be implemented by working with local businesses and communities to adapt to a future with less water.

Contrary to this, the former government produced a Plan that on all the available evidence will not restore the long-term health of river and groundwater systems across the Basin and instead, runs a separate top down process to spend $8.9 billion without any genuine consultation with the communities affected by these reforms.

As a consequence, the Basin Plan falls well short of returning the volumes of water that science has shown are required for a healthy river, vast sums of taxpayer’s money has been wasted, and communities’ confidence in government has been shattered.

Even in such a politically charged process, the Wentworth Group was able to link the science to public policy. This is probably best illustrated in the report of the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport’s Inquiry into the Management of the Murray Darling Basin. This report was tabled in March 2013 and extensively references the case put by the Wentworth Group.

Notwithstanding these highly critical findings, the Basin Plan is now law.

The immediate focus must now be to ensure that this Plan produces the outcomes it says it will, that what public funds remain are effectively used to deliver these legislated outcomes, and to reinstate the Sustainable Rivers Audit to monitor the overall health of the Basin’s rivers and groundwater systems and evaluate responses to the specific interventions of the Basin Plan.