Enduring solution needed to connect Northern and Southern Basin

Following the success of the connectivity trial, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH) says Basin governments must continue to find a permanent solution so the southern and northern Basins are truly joined up.

Following the success of the connectivity trial, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH) says Basin governments must continue to find a permanent solution so the southern and northern Basins are truly joined up.

As better water quality has arrived from the northern Basin, the connectivity trial has protected more than 41 gigalitres of held environmental water through Menindee Lakes and down the Lower Darling-Baaka River. Basin governments agreed to the trial, which sought to improve water quality and overall river health.

The CEWH, Dr Simon Banks, said that water for the environment must be truly protected between the northern and southern Basins and highlighted the importance of the shared responsibility of addressing water quality issues in the Basin.

“I welcome the decision of Basin states to protect held environmental water and for agreeing to this trial – it shows that connecting the northern and southern Basin can be achieved if we work together. I want to acknowledge the Murray–Darling Basin Authority’s role in this process,” Banks said. “It’s pleasing to see the water quality in the Lower Darling-Baaka River improve – the connectivity trial, cooler temperatures and earlier flows have all contributed. Addressing water quality is a complex problem that needs collective action – and all water users need to lean in, not just environmental water managers like the CEWH.”

Banks cautioned that the connectivity trial should not be a one-off. Basin governments need to change the rules so that water for the environment keeps its status as it moves between the northern and southern Basins. He said the CEWH would play its part in making this happen.

“Under current rules, once Commonwealth environmental water from the northern Basin enters the Menindee Lakes, it is reregulated – meaning it is no longer considered water for the environment, but instead is shared between water users in the southern Basin,” Banks said.

Since 2020, around 90 gigalitres of held water for the environment have been protected to the lakes and reregulated.

Before the Basin Plan and water recovery, this water would never have reached the lakes because it was extracted upstream.

“Because of this rule, which reregulates held environmental water once it hits Menindee Lakes, southern Basin water users have benefited since 2020 when, in fact, water recovered in the northern Basin should be used to protect and restore the environment as was always intended,” Banks said. “We have seen significant gains in protecting our held environmental water, but this longstanding rule at Menindee is getting in the way of a truly connected Murray–Darling Basin, and it needs to go. Protecting our held environmental water through the Menindee Lakes can improve conditions in the Lower Darling-Baaka Valley and the lower Murray.”

Banks outlined the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder’s unique role in taking a Basin-wide view.

“Right now, in partnership with our colleagues in the Victorian Government, we’re delivering Commonwealth water for the environment in the Goulburn River to provide local benefits for platypus and native fish. This same water will be used again in the Murray River to further improve water quality and complement the efforts of the trial on the Lower Darling-Baaka River,” he said. “The Murray–Darling Basin’s rivers, floodplains and wetlands are vital for sustaining healthy communities and economies. If we can work together to secure enduring solutions to the key issues in Basin-wide management, water for the environment will reach its full potential in supporting this national asset for this and future generations.”

CEWH and protection of flows fast facts

  • The CEWH is responsible for managing the Commonwealth’s environmental water holdings.
  • Commonwealth environmental water must be managed to protect or restore the ecological assets of Murray–Darling Basin (the Basin) to give effect to international agreements, including the Ramsar Convention.
  • Water for the environment is protected in many parts of the Basin. This means its status as water for the environment is maintained as the water moves from one valley to another.
  • However, under current rules, water for the environment is reregulated when it reaches Menindee Lakes and is reallocated among water users in the southern Basin.
  • Between 2020 and May this year, more than 130 gigalitres of held environmental water were protected through the northern Basin, reaching the Menindee Lakes. More than 41 gigalitres of this water have been used for the connectivity trial, but the rest have formed part of the shared resource, benefiting water users in the southern Basin.
  • The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder has been advocating for some time for the protection of environmental water that enters Menindee Lakes, most recently in the submission to the Productivity Commission’s Murray-Darling Basin Plan implementation review 2023: Submission 69 – Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH) – Murray-Darling Basin Plan: Implementation Review 2023 – Public inquiry (pc.gov.au)
  • The NSW Connectivity Expert Panel interim report, released in March 2024, notes that any water protected upstream should pass through Menindee Lakes and be available downstream as water for the environment.
  • Protection and recognition of environmental water are fundamental to the purpose of the Basin Plan, a world-first reform that provides for integrated management of Basin water resources across state borders.

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