A Groundbreaking Agreement to Save Australia’s Ailing Murray River

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

After years of debate, fiery protests and intense negotiations, Australia has adopted a historic plan to restore flows to the suffering Murray-Darling River Basin.

It is one of the boldest water pacts to restore nature on the books, and if successful, could offer a roadmap for overtapped river basins in other arid lands.

The plan aims to return 3,200 billion liters of water – about 13 percent of the Murray’s average annual flow – to the river system, which spans 14 percent of Australia’s territory, supports 39 percent of its agricultural production, and harbors 30,000 unique wetlands – 16 of them internationally recognized.  The basin is also home to the prized Murray cod, whose population has been decimated by excessive river diversions and many years of drought.

In signing the plan into law on November 22, federal environment minister Tony Burke proclaimed, “There’s always been an excuse to delay. Delay ended today. We now have a national approach to the Murray Darling Basin.”

As if the stars had aligned for river protection, the agreement on the Murray came just two days after the signing of a historic agreement between the United States and Mexico to better manage flows in the depleted Colorado River Basin, including the Colorado Delta.

For Australia, the river basin plan represents an ambitious attempt to rebalance water use between farms, cities and ecosystems.  It sets flow targets across the four basin states – Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia – and establishes caps on river diversions to ensure those environmental flows are met.  Those caps, or “sustainable diversion limits,” go into effect in 2019.

The Commonwealth government has already secured the majority of the water needed to execute the plan through investments of some $11 billion, most of them to buy water back from willing sellers.  But because of their effects on rural jobs and economies, those buybacks are highly controversial, and farmers and rural communities are hoping most of the remaining water needs will come not from additional water purchases, but from water efficiency improvements.

Toward that end, the Commonwealth has committed to spending an additional $1.8 billion on irrigation infrastructure upgrades and smarter water management, and Minister Burke is looking to the states to identify projects where those water savings can be realized.

For its part, much of the Australian conservation community is skeptical about the plan’s ability to succeed, arguing that at least 4,000 billion liters of water are needed to bring the river system back to health. The exclusion of groundwater pumping from the plan also raises concerns.  Because groundwater provides base flows for the river, increased groundwater extractions could reduce river flows, offsetting some of the plan’s restoration gains.

Full implementation of the plan will take until 2024, so only time will tell whether the plan does its job of restoring the wetlands and rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin to health.

But given its ambitious goals, and the diverse interests and numerous controversies that had to be mediated to get a final agreement signed into law, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan stands as an important landmark in 21st century river management.

[For more on the Murray River and the recent history of the basin plan, see my two earlier blogs, here and here.]

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. 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.”



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.