Collaboration on the Murray River

Mark Lamb is the CEO of the Murray Darling Association (MDA), looking after the needs of 172 local councils. He talked about the challenges and opportunities for councils within the Murray Darling Basin.

Mark Lamb is the CEO of the Murray Darling Association (MDA), looking after the needs of 172 local councils. He talked about the challenges and opportunities for councils within the Murray Darling Basin.

“Ongoing water availability is one of the biggest challenges we face. There is a cyclical thing in the Basin where we seem to go from drought to flood and back again. While we have a lot of infrastructure, I’m not sure that we are looking at the issues the right way.”

This is just one concern of Mark Lamb, CEO of the Murray Darling Association.  The Murray Darling Association (MDA) is the peak body for local government in the Murray-Darling Basin. It represents the interests of 172 Councils over four states whose communities rely on water and resources from within the Basin.

“One of the key challenges is trying to satisfy very many different needs of the communities that are across the basin,” said Lamb. “We represent local government areas from Queensland all the way through to South Australia and everywhere in between. The MDA is looking to try and improve the quality and quantity of water so that they can satisfy the community’s needs.”

The MDA and communities

With the outset that a healthy Murray-Darling Basin supports thriving communities, economic development, and sustainable productivity, the MDA ensures effective representation of local government and communities at a State and Federal level in the management of Basin resources.

“It’s not just about the water, although that’s our prime focus. We are trying to engage with many municipal governments across Australia. The MDA is trying to help them improve the situation for their communities,” he said.

To achieve this, the MDA advocates on behalf of Basin communities, explores sound solutions for regional issues through local knowledge and expertise, as well as facilitates debate regarding current issues and the future of the Basin.

“We split the MDA membership into regions. We’ve got 12 regions, and then they work their way down the Murray Darling Basin and all the way back up to the top into Queensland. By splitting the whole area into regions, we can try and reflect the different needs of each region,” said Lamb.

Challenges for MDA and the Murray River

Ongoing water availability is the prime concern for the MDA. Lamb and the MDA are looking at other issues, including infrastructure.

“Infrastructure upgrades are an ongoing issue, particularly regarding dams and irrigation,” he said. “One of the big questions is whether we need more infrastructure or should we be upgrading what we have. It’s not to say whether dams are necessarily good or bad, but we need to look at the viability of future infrastructure. It’s not just about its economic feasibility, but what it really means for that community, and potentially communities downstream.”

An unexpected challenge is the potential for rising sea levels. These two issues are difficult enough as it is, but they can combine for far more intimidating problems for the MDA and its member councils.

“We are considering the impact of rising sea levels because that’s going to be important in the lower Murray Darling Basin. Increasing salinity will impact the lower Murray, the Coorong, and the Lower Lakes Regions,” said Lamb.

Floodplain harvesting adds an additional layer of complexity. Lamb explained that it is part of a more complex question.

“Who actually controls that floodplain water when it floods?” he said. “Volume camps are an additional issue when it comes to environmental waters. How much water should any one license holder get? How much should be allowed for our communities? And how much is needed for environmental protection? Getting this balance right is not easy.”

Mark Lamb noted that water security across the Murray-Darling Basin is an ongoing issue for the Murray-Darling Association.

“Following the 2022 flood event, the onset of the El Nino, rising sea levels, and predicted diminishing water availability, water security is an ever-growing issue across the Basin,” Lamb said. “The MDA is exploring water security advocacy in context to water recovery programs, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, ongoing disaster recovery efforts, and in preparation for the drought events in years to come.”

Doing good research to benefit every community

The MDA has been working with world-class researchers across the country to investigate ways to support communities and environmental protection at the same time.

“We have partnered with the CSIRO, who are doing very interesting work on managed aquifer recharge. It’s something that is not well understood, but I think it has real potential. It’s low cost but comes with almost zero evaporation losses. There’s a real opportunity for us to look at alternative ways to store water for the future,” said Lamb.

The circular economy is another area of research for both the MDA and CSIRO. While some might question the study of the circular economy under the auspices of the MDA, Lamb believes that this is an important area ripe for research.

“Water is part of the circular economy,” he said. “Our constitution does not just look at water but at the wellness and livelihood of communities. We’ve been working with the CSIRO to investigate and explore a series of strategic growth areas that align with the biggest land and water challenges faced by Australian governments/agencies, industries, and communities. These growth areas will build on our capabilities and that of our partners and transform the boundaries of the types of products, research projects and services we might collaborate on.”

Adding value to members

From Lamb’s point of view, it’s important to provide value to the members and the communities they represent. It’s where the Basin Communities Leadership Program comes into play by identifying, educating and mentoring the next generation of water leaders.

“It’s not just about being a leader in the water space. We also need leadership in local government. The feedback we were getting back from communities is that people were going into local government without necessarily having had a lot of training. This also applies to people who have wound up in a leadership role without having had any training. We developed the course so people can learn leadership skills,” said Lamb.

While the program finished in March 2022, there was enough interest in keeping the program alive. Lamb is working with employers throughout the regions to offer a customised program to leaders in their fields. He’s had interest from the dairy industry and One Basin CRC, and levels of collaboration across the Murray Darling Basin has been high.

“I have found that local government areas are very keen to collaborate. In terms of industries and private enterprise, I think a lot of these organisations see the importance of having a healthy river system.”

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