Murray Darling Basin: Can We Manage Water?

Water is a key issue here in Australia, and will be of increasing concern with climate change in my viewpoint.

Where I grew up in Canberra we had the Murrumbidge river and used to swim in the Cotter river. I have fun memories of swimming across this river and it holds a special place in my heart. I remember as a child wondering if there were fish under my feet. At times the river was quite cold and I used to love sitting at the tiny wier watching the water come over. There was the Cotter Dam nearby which is a small dam, but from a child’s perspective we would be amazed at the water coming over this dam. I used to think of the story where there was a crack in the dam and how you could put your finger in to stop it. The thoughts of children.

The Cotter river was part of the greater Murray Darling basin.

The management of this basin is critical for Australia. Can we share it and how do we make it sustainable? Can irrigation and agricultural practices be continued? How should water be used? What happens when climate change brings greater droughts? What of flooding. Many quetions.

If I was indigenous I would see it as part of my body. I would use it only for my need not my greed. In fact the latter would not be conceivable. I would know the fish, the places to swim, the places to fish, the reeds and various bush tuckers. I would see another river, I would not see it the same as agronomists, economists and beureaucrats, for they would see it as a natural resource. I would see it as my lifeblood.

Water is the lifeblood of our lives, if we don’t preserve it, we don’t have it, we don’t live. That is how it is a integral part of our lives. What we do to nature we do to ourselves.

Courtesy of wikipedia

The Murray-Darling basin is a large geographical area in the interior of southeastern Australia, whose name is derived from its two major rivers, the Murray River and the Darling River. It drains one-seventh of the Australian land mass,[1] and is currently by far the most significant agricultural area in Australia. It spans most of the states of New South Wales, Victoria, and the Australian Capital Territory, and parts of the states of Queensland (lower third) and South Australia (south-east corner). It is 3,375 kilometres (2,097 mi) in length (the Murray River is 2,589 km (1,609 mi) long).

Most of the 1,061,469 km2 (409,835 sq mi) basin is flat, low-lying and far inland, and receives little direct rainfall. The many rivers it contains tend to be long and slow-flowing, and carry a volume of water that is large only by Australian standards.

Native Fauna

The Murray Darling Basin is home for many native animal species. The true numbers are not known, but a fairly confident estimate has been made of these animals and the current status of their population. Among the indigenous fauna in the region, the study found[citation needed] that there were:

* 85 species of mammals, with 20 extinct and 16 endangered.
* 53 species of frogs, with none endangered.
* 46 species of snakes, with 5 endangered.
* 5 species of tortoises, with none endangered
* 34 species of fish, with none endangered.

Introduced species

The Basin has also played host to a variety of introduced species. One of the most well known is the carp.

Introduced in around 1851, the four varieties of carp were used to stock up fish dams. Since then they have made their way into the river systems, where they spread quite quickly. These fish are very mobile, as they can travel easily on flood waters and their eggs can be transported by birds.

These fish are a problem because they feed by sucking gravel from the river bed and taking all the edible material off it, before returning the rest to the water. This stirs up all the sediment, reducing the quality of the water. When caught by a fisherman, it must be killed by law.


Total water flow in the Murray-Darling basin 1885 to the present has averaged around 24,000 gigalitres per year. This is the lowest rate of the world’s major river systems.[1] In most years only half of this quantity reaches the sea and in dry years much less. Estimated total annual flows for the basin have ranged from 5,000 gigalitres in 1902 to 57,000 gigalitres in 1956[citation needed]. Despite the magnitude of the basin, the hydrology of the streams within it is quite varied.

These waters are divided into three types: [2]

* The Darling and Lachlan basins. These have extremely variable flows from year to year, with the smallest annual flow being typically as little as 1 percent of the long-term mean and the largest often more than ten times the mean. Periods of zero flow in most rivers can extend to months and in the drier parts (Warrego, Paroo and Lower Darling basins) to years.[2] Flows in these rivers are not strongly seasonal. In the northern regions the majority of floods occur in the summer from monsoonal penetration. For most of the Darling and Lachlan catchments it is typical to see high or low flows begin in winter and extend to the following autumn (see El Niño). High water extraction rates for irrigation and mining have heavily compromised these rivers.

* The south-western basins (Campaspe, Loddon, Avoca, Wimmera). These have a marked winter rainfall maximum and relatively lower precipitation variability than the Lachlan or Darling. However, the age and infertility of the soils mean that run-off ratios are exceedingly low (for comparison, around a tenth that of a European or North American catchment with a similar climate[3]). Thus, variability of runoff is very high and most of the terminal lakes found in these basins very frequently dry up. Almost all runoff occurs in the winter and spring and, in the absence of large dams for regulation, these rivers are often seasonally dry during summer and autumn.

* A number of small catchments in South Australia, of which the largest are the Angas River flowing through Strathalbyn and the Finniss River further west, are part of the Murray-Darling Basin. These catchments lead to Lake Alexandrina, one of the lakes at the end of the Murray system. The Angas River is often dry in summer because of high levels of water extraction. The Finniss River has permanent flow which previously went into Lake Alexandrina but now has been cut off by a weir. The Finniss now fills the Goolwa Channel for recreational boating.

* The Murrumbidgee, Murray and Goulburn basins (except the Broken River which resembles the south-western basins). Because these catchments have headwaters in alpine country with relatively young peaty soils, the runoff ratios are much higher than in other parts of the basin. Consequently, although gross precipitation variability is no lower than in the Lachlan or Darling basins, runoff variability is markedly lower than in other parts of the basin. Typically these rivers never cease to flow and the smallest annual flow is typically around 30 percent of the long-term mean and the largest around three times the mean. In most cases the flow peaks very strongly with the spring snow melt and troughs in mid-autumn.

Of the approximately 13,000 gigalitres of flow in the basin, which studies have shown to be divertible, 11,500 gigalitres are removed for irrigation, industrial use, and domestic supply. Agricultural irrigation accounts for about 95% of the water removed,[1] including for the growing of rice and cotton. This extraction is highly controversial among scientists in Australia, regarding the agriculture industry’s high water use in a region extremely short of water (as much due to exceptionally low run-off coefficients as to low rainfall)


The basin covers five states and territory governments, who according to the Constitution, are responsible for managing water resources. The River Murray Commission was established in 1917.[1] Under the River Murray Waters Agreement, which never included Queensland despite the state containing about a quarter of the basin, the Commission’s role was only as an advisory body with no authority for the enforcement of provisions. For a long time the Commission was only concerned with water quantity until salinity became a problem. This lead to minor reforms in 1982 in which water quality became part of the Commission’s responsibilities.[1] However, it was soon recognised that a new organisational structure which considered the national perspective was needed for effective management.

The Murray-Darling Basin Agreement was first adopted in 1985 but it wasn’t until 1993 that its full legal status was in-acted.[1] The Agreement led to the creation of a number of new organisations under what is known as the Murray-Darling Basin Initiative. These included the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council and the Murray Darling Basin Commission.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan

In October 2010, The Murray-Darling Basin Authority released a major document outlining its plan to secure the long-term ecological health of the Murray-Darling Basin. This entails cutting existing water allocations and increasing environmental flows.[5] The document is officially titled the Guide to the Proposed Murray-Darling Basin Plan. It is the first part of a three-stage process to address the problems of the Murray-Darling Basin.[6] MDBA is responsible for preparing and overseeing a legally-enforceable management plan—the Basin Plan.

The Basin Plan is designed to set and enforce environmentally sustainable limits on the quantities of water that may be taken from Basin water resources, to set Basin-wide environmental, water quality and salinity objectives, to develop efficient water trading regimes across the Basin, to set requirements for state water resource plans and to improve water security for all Basin users.[7] It also intends to optimise social and economic impacts once these environmental outcomes have been met.[8]

With the release of the Guide to the Proposed Murray-Darling Basin Plan there have been a number of protests and voiced concerns about the plan in rural towns that the MDBA have visited to present the plan to consultation meetings.[9] Over 5,000 people attended a MDBA meeting in Griffith where Griffith Mayor, Mike Neville, said the plan would “obliterate” Murrumbidgee valley communities.[10] Other groups also echo this feeling, such as the Victorian Farmers Federation[11] and Wine Group Growers’ Australia.[12] Conversely, support for the Murray-Darling Basin plan has been received by various groups, including Australian Conservation Foundation,[13] and Environment Victoria.[14]

New legal advice from lawyers for the Federal Government is changing the plan. The Government’s reading is that the plan must give equal weight to the environmental, social and economic impacts of proposed cuts to irrigation. Environmentalists and South Australian irrigators, at the end of the river in South Australia, say the authority should stick to its original figure.[15]

In October 2010, a parliamentary inquiry into the economic impacts of the plan was announced.[16]

In late October 2010 the Water Minister, Tony Burke, played down the prospect of a High Court challenge to the Murray-Darling Basin plan, as confusion continued over new legal advice released by the Government. In response to community concerns that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority had put environmental issues first over social and economic needs, Burke released new advice on the requirements of the Water Act. Burke stated that the Act does allow for the authority to ‘optimise’ the needs of all three areas, but constitutional lawyer, George Williams, had cast doubts over the interpretation of the laws, stating it could be subject to a legal challenge.[17]

The MDBA announced in November 2010 that it might be forced to push back the release of its final plan for the river system until early 2012.[18]

The MDBA chairman, Mike Taylor, reassured the public meeting that more work is being done to look at how the proposed cuts would affect regional communities. He stated; “Importantly, we want to make sure the social and economic impacts—which under any sort of scenario is very significant—were fully teased out”.[19] Taylor resigned as he believed that the overriding principle should be the environmental outcome which was in conflict with the Gillard Government and following a period of sustained criticism of the Authority and the implementation of the proposed draft basin plan.[20] He was replaced by former New South Wales Planning Minister, Craig Knowles.

Mohandas Gandhi

“Each one has to find his peace from within. And peace to be real must be unaffected by outside circumstances.”