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Australia: The Murray-Darling Basin Authority

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Case study of River Basin Authority in Australia

Text of Australia: The Murray-Darling Basin Authority

  • The Murray-Darling Basin Authority is the River Basin Organisation which manages the Murray-Darling Basin.Its vision is to achieve a healthy working basin (social, cultural, economic and environmental) through the integrated management of water resources for the long term benefit of the Australian Community.Its mission states: we lead the planning and management of Basin Water Resources in collaboration with partner governments and the community.


  • First a few important facts about the Murray-Darling Basin. The Murray-Darling Basin has a highly variable flow regime, as can be seen from the graph on the top left of the slide. This includes rivers that do not always connect and drain in inland terminal lakes. The long-term annual flow discharge is 11km3 per year, compared to 420km3 per year for the Ayeyardawy river. Most of the flows come from the southern part, which contains many reservoirs and is highly regulated. There are cycles of floods and drought, which poses challenges for agricultural production, which forms an important component of the basin: 50% of Australias irrigated agriculture, includes annual crops like rice, cotton, but also perennials like fruit & grapes, dairy, etc. Other dryland agriculture includes floodplain grazing, wheat, canola, etc.The landmass is 14% of total Australian landmass (1 million km2), and contains 3 of its longest rivers: the Murray, the Darling, the Murrumbidgee. The eastern border is the great Australian Divide, so all these rivers turn inland and flow east, to drain in the southern ocean not far from Adelaide. The Murray is highly regulated and contributes to most of the annual flows. Apart from agriculture, the Basin is also important for many significant wetland sites, including 16 that are recognised internationally. The Basin is home to over 2 million people. 18% of aboriginal people also live in the Basin, which crosses 5 state borders and is governed by Queensland in the north, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory in the middle, and Victoria in the south, with South Australia being the state west where the Murray mouth ends in the ocean. The federal government also has legislative power, but more about that later.


  • From the beginning of last century, the fact that the Murray river forms a state boundary meant that water use had to be shared; this lead to the formation of the River Murray Commission (NSW, Victoria, South Australia and the Commonwealth) for the operation of the regulated river, and to ensure that Adelaide could receive sufficient drinking water. Large scale clearing of the land for agriculture lead to salinity problems emerging in the 1970ies. At the end of the 80ies, the Murray Darling Basin Commission (MDBC) was created. This was the first true River Basin Organization which included all the states and territories of the Basin, as well as the Commonwealth (federal) government. This RBO operated along the consensus model and was responsible for the establishment of many salinity interception schemes. A toxic algal bloom, 2000 km long lead to the realization that there was over-allocation of irrigation and resulted in the cap on diversions (maximum limit) and establishment of water markets, initially within the states only, and since 1998 also between the states. The salinity strategy was now revisited to extend across the entire Basin scale (2001). In 2004, when the Millennium drought was starting to bite, the National Water Initiative (NWI) was started for national scale water reform. It was also the first step in water recovery for the environment in the Murray (The Living Murray initiative, the precursor to the Basin Plan). The NWI was followed by the Commonwealth Water Act 2007 (giving the Commonwealth more decision-making power for managing water in the Murray-Darling Basin) and the establishment of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (a centralized RBO model). The MDBC was subsumed in the MDBA, and the new RBO was charged with the development of the Basin Plan. This plan became law in 2012, and is now being


  • implemented until 2019.


  • The agreement by the states to the Basin Plan and the centralized decision making for its creation and implementation required the law maker to recognize two reporting and accountability mechanisms:1.The Basin Plan would be decided by the Federal Minister for Environment/Water (green box top left corner), to whom the Authority (and its MDBA office) is reporting directly (Purple box bottom left). This mechanism is supported by a number of advisory groups, which contain members from the states. Because MDBA has a coordinating role, it is recognized that many aspects of the Basin Plan require implementation by the states and this consulting mechanism is therefore very important.2.The joint programs, which were inherited from the MDBC (consensus model RBO) continue to report to the Ministerial Council (Blue box top right corner). During MDBC, this Council was the decision-making body, but now the Council advises the Commonwealth Minister who has the power to make final decisions (usually he only endorses what the Council decides, but if the decisions conflict with the Basin Plan, he can override them). The Basin Officials Committee has high level representatives from each jurisdiction (Light blue box bottom middle), and advises Ministerial Council. The Basin Community Committee is an advisory group made up of representatives of the communities living in the Basin (sandy coloured box bottom right). They have no decision-making power.As the arrows suggest, there are interactions and communication between most of these groups, but formal reporting mechanisms are hierarchical in nature. The advisory groups supporting both the Authority and also Basin Officials Committee


  • are not depicted in this diagram, to avoid too much complexity.


  • The roles and responsibilities of MDBA can all be grouped into these five categories: planning and coordinating, regulating, evaluating and review, operating the River Murray, enhancing the knowledge base, including an educational role for the community.

    Note that MDBA has on the one hand a regulating role, on the other it coordinates and collaborates with the states. There is a healthy tension between the two, but there are other Authorities within Australia that have similar dual roles. Also it evaluates the effectiveness of Basin Plan implementation. While these roles and responsibilities are part of the Basin Plan, there are underpinning activities funded by joint programs that are supportive of these objectives. They include the salinity and water quality management strategy, joint management of significant assets (The Living Murray program), hydrological modeling, etc.


  • The Basin Plan is one policy tool that is embedded in the broader national water reform (but one of the most important ones).The MDBA works together with a number of other Commonwealth Agencies, and provides one tool (Basin Plan) for implementation in a suite of reform activities (management tools), which include water markets, water accounting and nationally accredited water resource plans.Data collaboration exists with Geoscience Australia (spatial data, including remote sensing), the Bureau of Meteorology (rainfall, runoff, hydrometric and water quality data), CSIRO and universities (modeling and research). Some of this data sharing is enshrined in legislation.MDBA also works with catchment management authorities (these operate at the smaller regional scale, below state level), but mostly through the state governments. Working with communities includes localism; this means having a dialogue with local communities to invite them to contribute their knowledge on water issues to plan for sustainable water management solutions.


  • The Basin Plan, established as a result of the Water ACT 2007 has five key components and a number of smaller components:Environmental watering plans (one year time frame) and Basin-wide watering strategy (5 year time frame) - Chapter 8Water resource plans (to be developed with the states; 5 year time frame) Chapter 10Water quality and salinity management plan Chapter 9Water trading rules Chapter 12Critical human water needs Chapter 11Monitoring and Evaluation Chapter 13

    Other Chapters in the Basin Plan are:Chapter 1 IntroductionChapter 2 Basin water resources and the context for their useChapter 3 Water resource plan areas and water accounting periodsChapter 4 Identification and management of risks to Basin water resourcesChapter 5 Management objectives and outcomes to be achieved by Basin PlanChapter 6 Water that can be taken (sustainable diversion limits)Chapter 7 Adjustments of SDLs (sustainable diversion limits)


  • Adjustment of SDL takes up a lot of hydrological modeling resources, as well as constraints management (these tasks will be completed in the next two years.


  • The Murray-Darling Basin Authority has two funding streams:1.Joint program funding (contributions by all jurisdictions): This was established when the RBO was still a consensus-based model (MDBC), and was inherited and reviewed when the new RBO was established. It includes ongoing management activities that existed before the Basin plan such as salinity interception, joint management of significant assets (The Living Murray program), and River Murray operations. Some of these activities were abolished as part of the review, because they were seen as now being carried out under the Basin Plan (the other funding stream).2.Commonwealth funding: this federal funding is to guarantee the creation and implementation of the Basin Plan.Both funding mechanisms are tied to the governance arrangements (see Slide 4); they are in place for the long term, but the amounts are decided annually as part of a four year planning cycle, and they can be changed depending on available budgets.


  • Achievements.Despite a set back with the release of the guide to the Basin Plan, when there was significant community backlash due to insufficient engagement at the time, it has now been legislated and is on track for being implemented. The focus on community engagement has included concerns on social-economic implications of returning water to the environment, and MDBA is working actively with stakeholders to make sure they are not disadvantaged as a result.The change from consensus based model to centralized model has been successful, and state governments now recognize the need for a Basin-wide plan to manage the rivers.ChallengesDespite the successes, there is ongoing concern about what the benefits will be of returning water to the environment, given the significant investment of water buy-backs. It will take time before the outcomes will be observed, and the benefits can be demonstrated, because there are always response time-lags between watering events and ecological responses. This is the social licence mentioned in the slide: community acceptance of the value of improved ecological condition.Once the Basin plan is implemented, there will be a need to continue coordination, management and monitoring functions. But the question will be if these functions are sufficient to maintain the MDBA or whether they can be taken over by the Federal Department of Environment. We will need to get clarity into what are the enduring responsibilities of the Authority and make sure funding will


  • be secured long term.


  • The river Basin Organisation in Australia was created for governance purposes and the sharing of the river between multiple state jurisdictions. Because water is scarce in Australia, it was necessary to manage it in the most efficient way; this has lead to creating water markets and other innovative management mechanisms.In the 1990ies, the focus of water management was inclusive of land management practices, and the boundary between terrestrial and freshwater management was smaller. With the Millennium drought (2002-2012), the focus was increasingly shifting towards water and freshwater ecologies only, because this was the highest priority. One could question is this is fully integrated water management, because the effects of erosion, sedimentation and nutrient run-off is also related to land use. Revegetation for example is not considered at the Basin scale, but could make a significant contribution to a more sustainable management.On the other hand, the consensus model which was used at that time often lacked ambitious targets, because every jurisdiction had to agree to it. Now, with the jurisdictions having signed on to federal legislation (centralised model), the decision lies with the federal minister, and the Basin Plan has much more ambitious management targets.