The Water Act and the Murray Darling basin plan – remembering the point

In the rush to get a Basin Plan that is politically palatable, it is easy to forget what the Water Act and Basin Plan were originally designed to achieve. The Water Act and Basin Plan are based on a recognition that current extraction levels are unsustainable in many parts of the Basin and have been for many years.  That is why the Howard Government developed the Act in the first place – to “address, once and for all, water over-allocation in the Murray-Darling Basin”.

EDO’s legal analysis released today finds that this objective will not be achieved if the proposed draft Plan is adopted in its current form.

The Water Act requires the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to set sustainable diversion limits for the Basin that will return extraction to sustainable levels. Sustainable extraction is not just about restoring Basin ecosystems to health, although that is an important part of the process. It is also aimed at ensuring productive use – agriculture, tourism etc – can continue. Unless there is enough water in the system to support these, the environment will continue to degrade, productive use will be affected through salinity and algal blooms, and there will be poor water security for all users.

The only way that sustainable extraction can be achieved is if current extraction is actually reduced. The Federal Government is spending $8.9b to make the transition easier through buybacks and infrastructure upgrades, as well as proposing a long transition period – until 2019 – to achieve the new limits.

The EDO has done a legal analysis of the draft Basin Plan to determine 1) whether it meets the requirements of the Water Act, and 2) whether it can be improved to be a better, more robust Plan. This is an independent legal analysis – it was not commissioned by anyone or done for any particular person or group.

We are hoping the analysis will encourage the MDBA and Federal Water Minister to improve the Plan now, before it is finalised, and we have set out ways to do this.

Our analysis concludes that the draft Plan does not comply with the Act in several areas. Most fundamentally, the MDBA appears to have compromised what is sustainable with concerns about socio-economic factors and so called ‘constraints’ in the system. Of particular concern is their decision to increase groundwater extraction by 150%, when the best available science states that groundwater extraction needs to decrease slightly to be sustainable.

If sustainable extraction is not achieved because it is perceived as being too hard or politically unpalatable – then the whole purpose of the Water Act is defeated.

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