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Australia Takes a Bold Step To Shape its Water Future

Rains have returned to Australia’s drought-stricken Murray-Darling River Basin, with some parts of the watershed getting their first decent drink in a decade. But the region is nonetheless forging ahead with an effort few in the world have had the courage to undertake: asking farmers and communities to adapt to a future with less water...

Rains have returned to Australia’s drought-stricken Murray-Darling River Basin, with some parts of the watershed getting their first decent drink in a decade. But the region is nonetheless forging ahead with an effort few in the world have had the courage to undertake: asking farmers and communities to adapt to a future with less water in order to restore failing rivers, lakes, and wetlands.

Photograph of irrigation pipe in Barooga, New South Wales, in 2007, courtesy of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

(Read the 2009 National Geographic magazine article about drought in the Murray-Darling River Basin.)

Photograph of the Murray River in 2004, courtesy of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.


Under a proposed plan released on March 8 by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, the volume of water that could be diverted from the basin’s rivers, streams and other freshwater ecosystems would be cut on average by a whopping 22-29 percent and the water used to restore the health and functioning of high-priority river segments, floodplains, wetlands and other “environmental assets.” It is perhaps the boldest water reform of this type ever proposed. And while weeks of public hearings and revisions to the proposal lie ahead, there is little doubt that a big water shake up is in the cards Down Under.

As the driest inhabited continent, Australia has always had its share of water challenges. Just 10 percent of the country’s rainfall ends up in rivers–one of the smallest ratios in the world. But despite its long experience with aridity, the extreme drought of the last decade is proving to be a game changer.

Much like the Colorado River in the U.S. Southwest, the Murray-Darling basin is southeast Australia’s lifeline and a vital asset to the nation. The Basin spans 14 percent of Australia’s territory and supports 39 percent of its agricultural production. It is also home to 30,000 unique wetlands, 16 of them internationally recognized, as well as a rich diversity of freshwater species-including the prized Murray cod.

Within any watershed, the interconnected network of rivers, streams, groundwater, floodplains, and wetlands deliver a host of benefits. They cleanse water of pollutants, sustain habitats for fish and wildlife, deliver nutrients to coastal fisheries, and mitigate floods and droughts. These so-called ecosystem services are easy to overlook until they begin to disappear.

Australia’s decade of drought greatly worsened conditions in a watershed already chronically ill from years of excessive water diversions. In 2002, the Murray River ran dry for the first time, and since then, only dredging has kept its mouth open to the sea. Beloved red gum trees are ailing along 900 miles (1450 kilometers) of the river. Fisheries scientists were shocked when surveys in 20 different river locations turned up no Murray cod. And a 2008 audit found that 20 of the Basin’s 23 river valleys were in “poor” or “very poor” health.

Photograph of dried-out wetlands along the Murray River, at Big Bend, courtesy of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.


(See more photos of Australia’s dry run.)

At a conference in Sydney last June on the future of irrigation in Australia, the talk was all about the cuts in water allocations soon to be proposed. I heard a lot of anxiety expressed by irrigators that, after a decade of crop-withering drought followed by economic distress, big water cuts would put more farms out of business. But overall I heard little battle talk of farms versus fish, jobs versus wetlands. Mostly I heard a genuine search for balance-for that sweet spot where a vital agricultural economy resides within a healthy and beautiful landscape.

The Murray Darling Basin Authority’s (MDBA) proposed plan, which was requested by Australia’s Commonwealth Water Act of 2007, is an important step in that direction. Using the best available science, the MDBA has determined that at least an additional 800-1,000 billion gallons (3-4 trillion liters) of water per year needs to be returned to high priority ecosystems to restore their health and functions. It then determined what it called “sustainable diversion limits”-the environmentally sustainable level of consumptive water use within the basin. To stay within those limits would require a basin-wide average cut in water diversions of 22-29 percent. Some areas would see relatively small reductions, but others would see cuts up to 35 percent.

The proposal may seem Draconian, but the Commonwealth is already working to ease the pain by offering up AUS$12.6 billion over 10 years to aid the transition. Just under half of this funding would go to water efficiency projects–for example, helping farmers get more crop per drop by installing drip irrigation. In addition, a government entity called the Environmental Water Holder will purchase water entitlements from willing sellers and return that water to rivers, lakes, and wetlands.

The MDBA estimates that the water buybacks and efficiency investments together will save some 528 billion gallons (2 trillion liters per year)–half to two-thirds of the additional water it has determined is needed to restore the basin’s ecological health. By the end of 2009, the government had already purchased 205 billion gallons (766 billion liters) worth of entitlements.

Certainly, a tough road lies ahead. Since the March 8 release of what the MDBA calls the Guide to the proposed Basin Plan, thousands of farmers and townspeople have turned out to protest the proposed water cutbacks. The Authority is holding community information sessions across the basin over the coming weeks; then a draft in more legal language is to be issued within a few months. Between now and the issuance of a final plan, probably in late 2011, a lot of debate and soul-searching will no doubt take place about the kind of world this generation of Australians wants to pass on to its children and grandchildren.

Big change rarely comes easy. But to secure a desirable water future in Australia, it is inevitable. The conversation the Aussies are now having is one people in many parts of the world-including those in the Colorado River Basin-will need to have to successfully adapt to a drier, thirstier future. One can hope that Australia’s leadership will encourage more heads to emerge from the sand.

The words of Murray Smith, CEO of the Northern Victoria Irrigation Renewal Project, and one of my co-panelists in Sydney last June, have stuck with me: “We can do a thousand cuts and a generation of pain, or we can take our pill and move on.”

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and lead water expert for National Geographic’s Freshwater Initiative.  She is the author of several acclaimed books, including the award-winning Last Oasis, a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and one of the “Scientific American 50.”

[This post has been reformatted for Water Currents.]

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Meet the Author

Sandra Postel
Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and author of Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity. From 2009-2015, she served as Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. Sandra is also co-creator of Change the Course, the national water stewardship initiative awarded the 2017 US Water Prize for restoring billions of gallons of water to depleted rivers and wetlands. The recipient of several honorary degrees, she works to bridge science, policy, and practice to promote innovative ways of securing water to meet both human and ecosystem needs.