Australia’s Grand Water Experiment – Take Two


Australia’s iconic Murray River, beloved for the red gum forests that line its banks and the prized Murray cod that ply its waters, is suffering big time from the high demands placed upon its finite flows and the decade of dryness that presaged the climate disruption to come.

Today, Australia’s Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) released its long-awaited draft plan to restore the health of the river while also preserving the vast farm economy that depends upon it.  Spanning 14 percent of Australia’s territory, the Murray-Darling basin yields 39 percent of the country’s agricultural output.

This draft plan is the next step in one of the boldest efforts at water reform taking place in the world today.

See my earlier blog and a photo gallery on the Murray Darling Basin.

The basin plan attempts to address a big question: Can healthy rivers and productive agriculture co-exist side-by-side in water-stressed regions?  If so, how do we get there?

After years of drought that drained the over-tapped Murray dry before it reached the sea, the Australian government called in 2007 for the development of a new plan to better manage the river.  The idea was to better balance human and nature’s needs for water – to restore river flows, wetlands and floodplains while sustaining agriculture and rural communities at the same time.

To do this, the just-released MDBA plan proposes to reduce diversions from the river by 2,750 gigaliters (726 billion gallons) per year, or 11.5 percent of the river’s annual average flow.  The MDBA maintains that nearly 40 percent of these savings have already been achieved through voluntary buybacks of water entitlements and infrastructure upgrades that have taken place since 1995.

As a result, the amount of “new” water needed to restore the river to health amounts to just 1,468 gigaliters (388 billion gallons) per year.  And this target volume could drop even further, the MDBA says, if new knowledge gleaned between now and 2015 suggests that smarter river management alone can improve the Murray ecosystem.

Unfortunately, this fuzzy math doesn’t match up with the best science. The MDBA guidance issued in October 2010 indicated that scientists had determined that a minimum of 3,000-4,000 GL per year was needed to restore the Murray ecosystem to health.

Moreover, in a review of the MDBA plan’s “environmentally sustainable level of take” for the river, a panel of scientists assembled under CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, concluded that the modeling results for 2800 GL per year of cutbacks do not meet “several of the specified hydrologic and ecological targets.”  The plan also ignores likely climate impacts and the reduced flows they are likely to bring.

Yet even the softer diversion cuts in the current proposed plan appear unacceptable to the irrigation industry. No sooner was the ink dry than irrigators began decrying the proposed 2,750 gigaliters in cutbacks, claiming they will cost the region dearly in jobs, crop production and farm revenues.

For their part, environmental groups are pushing back, stressing that the river needs more water to stand even a chance of returning to health.  The Australian Conservation Foundation, a national environmental group based in Melbourne, is calling on Australia’s water minister to instruct the MDBA to consider a plan that returns 4,000-5000 gigaliters to the Murray ecosystem.

Twenty weeks of public consultation and comment now begin.

For sure, the water drama Down Under will have a “take three.”  Let’s stay tuned, because some version of it will no doubt be opening in a watershed near us very soon.




Changing Planet

Meet the Author
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.