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Battle of the Murray

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The Murray-Darling Basin Authority have released their Guide to the proposed Basin Plan amidst controversy.

Murray River

The Murray River in South Australia, well below the waterline.

Credit: iStockphoto

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Australians have the opportunity to contribute their feedback on the first significant water reform for the country. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) have released their Guide to the proposed Basin Plan; a precursor to the restoration work due to start next year.

The Murray-Darling Basin – one million square kilometres of our three largest rivers, and over 30,000 wetlands – is in dire need of water. Environment groups say that Australia is at risk of breaching their international agreements to protect the 16 wetlands listed under the Ramsar Convention as Wetlands of International Importance.

The mouth of the Murray River has not opened significantly since 2002, and water flows and fish migrations are hampered by the Basin's 30 dams and 3,500 weirs which also supply critical water to more than three million people. Currently, most dams are at less than a quarter of their capacity, so there is little scope to give water back to the environment.

In the 1920s, just 2,000 gigalitres (GL) of water was removed from the Murray-Darling Basin every year for municipal and drinking water, irrigation and other farming methods, but by the 1990s this increased to 11,000 GL per year.

Currently a total of 15,400 GL of water (both surface water and ground water) is removed from the Basin every year. That’s more than 30 times the volume of water in Sydney Harbour. Today, only 5,100 GL flows out of the mouth of the Murray, compared to the 12,500 GL per year that was flowing through the mouth pre-European settlement.

Severe drought conditions have forced governments to stop upgrading allocations and increase water restrictions over the last decade, but obvious decline in the health of the Basin has shown that this has not been good enough.

In some regions, the report says that up to 40 per cent of water being taken needs to stop. The restoration plan says a minimum of between 3,000 - 4,000 GL per year needs to be returned to the environment to meet the requirements of the Commonwealth's Water Act 2007.

If the goal was long term security for the environment, at least 7,600 gigalitres water should be returned to dying ecosystems, however the MBDA has recognised that cuts this high are not economically feasible due to social and economic expectations from human interactions on the Basin. If flows were increased by up to 10,000 gigalitres, this could satisfy all of the Basin's environmental requirements and see the mouth of the Murray open 90 per cent of the time.

With around 40 per cent of the food eaten in Australia produced by the Basin, the economic impacts of the Guide has not fallen on deaf ears with the National Farmer's Federation (NFF).

“Once you factor in how the states go about implementing the proposed cuts, the water leftover to produce food could reduce to a trickle,” said NFF President David Crombie.

“Based on the MDBA’s proposals Australia will be scraping the bottom of its food bowl. These regions would be belted, with the spillover impact to jobs – such as transport, processing and businesses – potentially crippling the Basin economy. We’re not just talking about regional towns and local economies… it will affect all Australians, every household,” said Crombie.

However, the MBDA plan has drawn on years of extensive scientific studies on the ecology and water movement patterns in the Basin, identifying key environmental assets in the region. Social and economic impacts have been taken into account in conjunction with the environment's water needs. The plan will help a huge number of endangered and threatened native plants and animals, such as the iconic Murray Cod.

Don Henry executive director at the Australian Conservation Foundation believes the drastic action proposed by the MDBA is crucial to a sustainable future for Australia. “Taking too much water out of rivers may benefit some businesses in the short-term, but healthy rivers support communities, agriculture and tourism for the long-term,” he said in an official statement last week.

The Greens website says that “there's no doubt that the proposed changes will not be easy to implement, but that is no reason to avoid the challenge. Everyone knows we have taken far too much water for far too long, and the river system has suffered as a result.”

Over the next 15 weeks, the MDBA is seeking views of the community and stakeholders, so have your say in the proposed Basin Plan by viewing the guide online here, and providing your feedback here.