MDBA CEO address to the National Press Club

Andrew McConville, CEO, Murray–Darling Basin Authority, addressed the National and Rural Press Club today about the Murray Darling Basin Plan. Below is a transcript of his speech.

Andrew McConville, CEO, Murray–Darling Basin Authority, addressed the National and Rural Press Club today about the Murray Darling Basin Plan. Below is a transcript of his speech.

Good afternoon and thank you for the kind invitation to speak to you today.

I would like to acknowledge that we meet today on the traditional lands of the Ngunnawal people. And we respect and acknowledge their connection to this land.

I pay my respects to Ngunnawal Elders past, present, and emerging.

I also acknowledge and pay respect to the First Nations people throughout the Murray–Darling Basin, who have a deep connection to the lands and waters.

As well as all First Nations people here today.

There are around 40 nations across the Basin. And we strive to maintain a strong and resilient partnership with all First Nations people.

We all can and should do better.

Three weeks ago, I spent some time with the Ngarrindjeri People down on the Coorong. It was a genuine privilege to be with them.

Their deep identification with their Country is something to behold. It holds their family, their history and their culture.

Such a connection with Country embraces all who walk upon it.

It also holds pain in the past and promise in the future … in equal measure.

Our thoughts remain with those communities and businesses impacted by flooding, which for many must seem unrelenting.

Like many of you, I saw the horrifying story of a family from Eugowra, clinging to a tree, while flood waters raged all around them.

For four hours they waited, hoping rescuers could see them from the helicopters above. Can you imagine.

What is even more terrifying is that the water seemed to have come from nowhere, quickly engulfing their car. An “inland tsunami” it’s being called.

For other communities like Echuca and Shepparton, their experience of flooding is full of uncertainties and ‘what ifs’ as they waited for the inevitable flood waters to arrive.

The impact of floods like this is often brutal.

Tragically, lives have been lost.

Livelihoods destroyed.

Supply chains to markets have been broken, bridges and roads washed away. Local governments estimate there is $2.5 billion in road damage.

We’ve seen devastating images of the impacts of blackwater on our native fish.

The damage to the built and natural environment is captured in the headlines and the drone footage widely shared on social media. It’s very visible and front of mind.

The horrendous clean up and recovery takes a significant toll – and not many of your cameras are still rolling then.

And what is invisible are the social impacts. ‘Normal life’ is gone within minutes, and it strains relationships.

These communities have really copped a gutful. Places like Gunnedah where I had my first job after university, have experienced 7 floods in 12 months.

These communities lean on each other, support each other, and in time will rebuild their lives together.

Our thoughts are with all those suffering at this time.

I’d also like to acknowledge the tremendous job of our emergency services who have absolutely been doing their best under pretty terrible circumstances.

The extremes of our increasingly variable climate are on full display right now, and devastatingly so.

Daily inflows into the Murray River system for November are seven times the long-term average. Rainfall was the highest on record for October for large parts of the Murray–Darling Basin in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland.

And as sure as the sun is to rise tomorrow, we know the next drought is never far away.

10 years ago today, the then Water Minister Tony Burke stood in this room and announced that the Basin Plan had been signed into law.

In his speech, Minister Burke said:

“Today is the day that Australia decided to restore the Murray–Darling to health.

Today is the day that Australia decided that Basin communities were every bit as important as they know they are, and Australia has recognised that.

And Australia has made sure that we will lead the world in making sure that our environmental assets are used sustainably while still being used productively.”

It’s a timely reminder for all about why we have a Basin Plan, and why it needs to be delivered in full.

Throughout the Murray–Darling Basin, water gives life to us all.

Most likely the food on your plate, or the wine in your glass has come from an irrigated farm or vineyard in the Basin.

Water delivers an ecosystem for plants, animals, and fish.

It underscores the history and culture of First Nations people.

It’s home to 16 internationally significant wetlands, 35 endangered species and 120 types of waterbirds.

More than 2.3 million people live in the Basin.

The Basin’s rivers and groundwater networks also support an agricultural sector worth $22 billion each year.

Our rivers and wetlands attract visitors from around the world, with tourism earning around $11 billion each year.

The Murray–Darling Basin is both an economic and an ecological powerhouse.

So many values … so many perspectives … so much at stake.

But managing water, is not – and it cannot be – about one community, one sector, one industry or one perspective. It’s about balance.

That’s why we have the Basin Plan.

Come January next year, I’ll have been working for 30 years, and it will mark around 6 months in the job as chief executive of the MDBA.

I’m not a scientist, a river operator, or an engineer. Until recently, I wasn’t a public servant, but what drives me is bringing people together, building a shared understanding and vision, and getting balanced outcomes.

I have spent much of my working life trying to find a balance between environmental and agricultural needs. Between the needs of government and the community in all its forms.

My passion and empathy for rural and regional Australia stretches back to my youth. I was born 30 miles out of Scone in the Hunter region of New South Wales.

Dad, a young man from Orange, was the only teacher at Isis River – teaching 20 kids from prep to grade 6 in a single room weatherboard school, with a tennis court and monkey bars out the front, and the Isis out the back. Across the river lived my mum who nursed the aging property owner, Mr Payne.

In 1971, we moved to Armidale where my dad taught at The Armidale School.

Over time my mum became the school librarian. 52 years later we are still connected to Armidale. My sister lives there, my nephew goes to uni there. Rural Australia is in my bones.

Growing up in the country all my friends were from farms, so every school and university holidays I would go and work on the land.

I chipped and sprayed burrs, mustered cattle and helped irrigate cotton through the night. I fished on the Darling, swam in the Namoi and water skied on Keepit and Copeton. I have camped and played from the Channel Country to the Coorong.

And building a career mostly in agriculture, but with other unique experiences thrown in, I have lived in Queensland, in rural NSW, in country Victoria and in South Australia. I have seen the majesty of booms and the agony of busts.

And without knowing it at the time, those experiences have anchored me to rural and regional Australia in a way that has shaped what matters to me most.

Fast forward to today and water management is singularly the most complex thing I have ever had to get my head around.

You have local governments and state governments who are advocating in the best interests of their region and state.

You have the Commonwealth taking a Basin-wide view in the best interests of the nation.

And you have a wide range of communities and interest groups all wanting to be heard – and all should be heard.

Against this backdrop is the Murray and Darling Rivers flowing thousands of kilometres across what is basically a flat and mostly dry plain.

The elevation of the Darling River is just 100 metres at its source, and the river flows for nearly fifteen hundred kilometres to join the Murray. That’s a fall of just one metre every 15 kilometres.

There are around 20 major rivers in the Basin and more than 30 major dams or reservoirs storing more than 22,000 gigalitres of water.

There are multiple groundwater basins and flows.

Then you have all the variables. Rainfall variability, geological variability, agricultural variability, ecological variability, socio-economic variability and politics.

The Basin’s constituency is represented by 11 Houses of Parliament and more than 800 politicians.

There is the 980 pages of Commonwealth water legislation alone and then water legislation in every state.

I mean, how much harder do you want to make this?

The Basin Plan came about during one of the worst droughts on record.

The Millennium Drought shook us all.

I was living in Horsham in the early days of the drought. I had cracks in my front garden that you could easily lose a two-metre broom handle in.

According to the Bureau of Meteorology, inflows into the Murray River fell to their lowest on record, and only irrigation releases kept the river flowing.

There was no water set aside for human critical needs, or for the environment. No safety net.

The Millennium Drought devastated communities, industries, and First Nations people.

It led to heavy water use restrictions in capital cities, disconnected wetlands, exposed acid sulphate soil and reduced water allocations to zero for many irrigators.

The Basin Plan came about because, as a nation, we agreed that enough was enough.

The needs of the whole, took precedence over the needs of one state, one interest group, one community.

It was a national tragedy, that hit all Australians at their core.

Something needed to change.

During the past couple of decades, we have had 2 serious droughts. The Millennium Drought from 1997 to 2009, and drought across the Basin from 2017 to 2019.

We have seen fish deaths and flooding.

Over the life of the Basin Plan we have seen 4 federal elections and 20 state and territory elections.

There have been more than 10 separate inquiries into the Basin Plan by the Australian Parliament.

There have been 2 statutory assessments of progress and more than 70 independent reports, as well as numerous state-based inquiries.

And 10 years later the Basin Plan persists.

I have travelled extensively since joining the Authority.

I have a map in my office, and each time I visit a new place in the Basin as part of my role, I mark it with a red dot. So far, I have 36 dots.

Being truly heard is one of the main themes of the conversations I have with everyone I have met.

The other key message I hear, is that everyone wants a healthy river system.

Of course, people have different views about what this looks like, and those views can differ vastly depending on who and where you are.

But everyone shares a passion for the health of our rivers and importantly, no-one I have come across wants to do away with the Plan.

Hand on heart, literally no-one has said … “throw it out”.

I struggle to think of anywhere else in the world where such an extraordinary political agreement has been achieved.

In Central Asia, the Amu Darya River which once supported agriculture for thousands of years, is dying, impacting millions of people in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The Aral Sea into which it used to flow is almost dry. Put simply, water isn’t being shared between users and the environment and climate change is making it worse.

In the United States, the Colorado River – which is a close cousin of the Murray-Darling because it flows through several states across an arid landscape – continues to suffer because of drought and the competing upstream and downstream interests.

No one is interested – or willing – to come together for the benefit of the river and its communities.

The Colorado River hasn’t reached the Pacific Ocean through Mexico in more than 60 years. An environmental pulse flow did connect it to the sea for a short while in 2014.

And so, it is against this international background you can see how remarkable the Basin Plan is. A plan in place on the driest inhabited continent on earth.

What is often forgotten in the national conversation is that the Basin Plan is a long-term, world-leading environmental reform.

Over 100 years, without a national plan or purpose, we took too much water from our rivers. Turning around 100 years of over-consumption doesn’t happen quickly.

But we want our quick fixes – like the gratification of likes on Tik Tok. And nothing could be truer than the expectation placed on the Basin Plan.

Turning around the decline in the health of our rivers, wetlands and floodplains takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight.

Importantly we have seen improvements, which I will touch on shortly.

But first, we must reflect on the fact that this change has come at a cost to our irrigation dependent communities.

Make no mistake, they have done the heavy lifting, and on this 10-year anniversary of the Plan, all Australians need to stop and think about that.

Some communities have lost out because of the Plan. Others have thrived.

Lessons from the various approaches to water recovery and their flow-on impacts to communities must be considered by government in future decisions.

Recently we published a report on the social and economic conditions experienced by people living across the Basin.

It focusses on community wellbeing and provides us with a baseline from which to monitor changing conditions over time.

It found that over the past decade, at a Basin scale, gross regional product, local jobs, and population have all increased.

Community views on personal and community wellbeing in the Basin reached a 5-year high in 2020. Noting of course, there are some towns doing it tough. The pace of change in rural and regional Australia is rapid and there are many factors at play.

The value of irrigation production dropped in 2019-2020 to $6.3 billion during record-breaking drought, following a high of nearly $9 billion in 2017-2018. New data from the ABS shows this rebounded last financial year to $8.4 billion.

Despite the interruption caused by COVID, over the longer-term, tourism in the Basin has grown.

However, First Nations employment rates across the Basin are much lower than non-Indigenous employment rates, and water ownership by Indigenous entities is low and has decreased in recent years.

We can and must do better to support First Nations people across the Basin.

This report gives us an overview, a vital picture, even though not all social and economic measures are covered.

Governments can’t make crucial decisions that might impact the lives and livelihoods of Basin communities, unless we understand community wellbeing and the state of the Basin economy.

We must learn the lessons of the past.

We will continue monitoring social and economic conditions, and we will share our findings when more data becomes available.

The socio-economic report is useful because it broadly covers the period of the Basin Plan.

Not all the data sets go back the full 10 years of the Basin Plan, but many do, and you can see the trends over time.

The Basin Plan is neither responsible for all upturns, nor is it responsible for all down turns. Rather the report helps us understand what is happening in our complex operating environment.

Through the Basin Plan, water is now set aside for critical human water needs. Water for towns and cities is now prioritised in dry times. This didn’t exist in the Millennium Drought.

There’s been significant government investment to make every drop count, on and off farm. Modern, clever irrigation networks, smart water meters and precision watering on-farm. A far cry from the dethridge wheels of old!

And, the Basin’s irrigators, who are among the most innovative in the world, have been at the forefront of this transition.

We have seen limits on water extraction put in place for all catchments across the Basin, and the MDBA and Inspector General of Water Compliance have been monitoring compliance within these limits.

Water resource plans are in place for all but one state, New South Wales, where two of 20 plans have been accredited.

Water resource plans are critical.

They are the legal mechanism through which states show how they will deliver on the requirements of the Basin Plan at a local scale. How they will deliver the actions they promised when the Plan was established 10 years ago.

We’ve seen 2,100 gigalitres of water – the equivalent of over 4 Sydney Harbours – returned to the environment.

And, we are starting to see promising environmental outcomes from this water.

According to the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office, during the past 10 years, water for the environment has helped avoid some of the devastating impacts of drought on the Basin’s rivers, plants, and animals. Keeping them alive until good conditions returned.

Environmental water has connected rivers after drought in the north …  maintaining refuge habitat that has underpinned the recovery we are starting to see across areas of the northern Basin.

It has supported the continued recovery of native fish species since fish death events several years ago. Native fish species have been spawning in high numbers.

During the last drought, almost all the flows to the Coorong were due to water for the environment recovered under the Basin Plan.

Over the past 7 years, water for the environment has supported more than 22,000 kilometres of waterways and inundated more than 370,000 hectares of lakes, wetlands, estuarine ecosystems, and floodplains, including 10 Ramsar sites. This water has supported countless waterbird and native fish species.

Water for the environment has helped export more than 3.3 million tonnes of salt through the barrages and out to sea.

We are seeing a more coordinated approach to using this water for the environment.

A bit over 10 years ago, water for the environment was being used to target specific locations in times of drought.

Today – under the Basin Plan – environmental water holders and the MDBA are working together to better coordinate how they use the water to deliver benefits across the river system. Adaptative water management in action.

In hot and dry years through the life of the Basin Plan, this water has provided between a third and a half of all water flowing to the Lower Murray and the Murray Mouth. Providing benefits from the top to the bottom of the system.

A river system like the Murray dies if it doesn’t connect with the sea. It must connect with the ocean to flush out sediment and salt.

Failing to do so significantly reduces water quality. And in the case of the Murray River, would permanently damage the delicate ecosystems of the Lower Lakes and Coorong region, as well as seriously impacting the health of the entire system.

Make no mistake, all of us depend on a healthy river flushed of its salt, nutrient load and sediment.

Thanks to water for the environment, salt interception schemes and better land management practices, we have met the Basin Salinity Target for the Murray River at Morgan in South Australia every year since 2010.

But is it enough?

Has enough water been recovered to sustain the Murray–Darling Basin?

And are our rivers set up to deliver the water that was been returned to the environment?

Sadly, no.

Like it or not, our major rivers are now highly regulated.

The network of dams, locks and weirs built over 100 years mean for the most part water can be delivered where it is needed.

To an irrigator for their crop, or a town for drinking water.

After 100 years of regulation and control, many of our rivers have been turned into little more than pipelines, with one purpose – to deliver water to users – a consumptive pattern of flow … More water in the summer, less in the winter.

But a river lives and breathes, and it must connect with its floodplain.

The natural rhythm of nature is what the Basin Plan is trying to replicate, while minimising the impact on communities.

Right now, around 90 percent of water used by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder is delivered in-channel, and in some instances, water is still having to be pumped onto floodplains.

Critical state-led projects to improve supply and ease constraints are delayed, making it harder to achieve the outcomes that Basin governments intended and committed to 10 years ago.

And despite the great progress I have just spoken about, not all water for the environment has yet been recovered.

It’s not what governments signed up to 10 years ago. Much has been achieved. There is still much to do. So much at stake.

The Basin Plan set a benchmark target of returning 2,750 gigalitres of water to the environment.

Following the Northern Basin Review in 2018, this amount was reduced to 2,680 gigalitres.

The Basin Plan also sets out a further 450 gigalitres for the environment will be delivered through efficiency measures.

And for the point of clarity, this water is part of the Plan and the Water Act, plain and simple.

Not an up to … or add on … it’s part of the Plan.

As I touched on earlier, more than 2,100 gigalitres has been returned to the environment and is primarily managed by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder.

To provide flexibility, the Basin Plan included a way to adjust the amount of water that can be taken from our rivers and groundwater systems and used. This is known as the SDL Adjustment Mechanism.

Basically, the states committed to complete a bunch of projects that would allow us to achieve the outcomes envisaged by the Basin Plan but with less environmental water.

In 2017, Basin governments put forward 36 projects. We assessed them and determined that, as a package, they would deliver environmental outcomes equivalent to 605 gigalitres of water. Essentially keeping 605 gigalitres of water in consumptive use.

Until they are up and working as proposed, these SDLAM projects are like a credit to water users, at the expense of the environment.

The credit has been banked, but the payment still needs to be delivered. The payment is in the form of the SDLAM projects being in operation by 30 June 2024.

Today we released our 2022 SDLAM Assurance Report.

The fourth such report, consistent with a commitment to be transparent on progress being made by the states in delivering their projects.

The volumes in the report are point in time estimates only. In 2024 we will calculate the new contribution from the working projects and incorporate any progress.

But the report establishes clearly that some projects will not be completed by the 30 June 2024 deadline.

Consequently, we are preparing to undertake a reconciliation in 2024 as we are statutorily required to do under the Basin Plan.

As it stands several projects to ease constraints so the river can more easily connect with its floodplain, are estimated to need another 5 to 10 years beyond 2024, to be finished.

And the NSW Government has been clear that the Menindee Lakes water saving project, will not support the environmental outcomes and volumetric contribution expected in 2017.

Currently, our assessment is that the SDLAM projects will most likely deliver between 290 and 415 of the 605 gigalitres required as part of the Basin Plan.

Put another way, we expect a shortfall of between 190 and 315 gigalitres.

This means the Authority will have no choice but to recommend to the Federal Water Minister, amended sustainable diversion limits in southern Basin catchments.

Of course, the actual steps to bridge any expanded water recovery gap will be a decision for Basin governments.

And as I mentioned, recovering the 450 gigalitres through efficiency measures is also proving challenging. Just over 4 gigalitres have been delivered, with a further 22.1 gigalitres contracted for delivery.

While achieving 450 gigalitres by the 2024 deadline will be very difficult, Minister Plibersek has confirmed that all options for achieving this target are on the table.

Our role is to advise governments on options as requested, how these options may impact on SDLs, and to report transparently on progress.

These are not water recovery numbers plucked from the air.

They were rooted in the best available science and focus on what the environment of the Basin needs to be sustainable.

Water recovery targets matter. That is why they are such an important element of tracking the performance of the Basin Plan. And they are a legislative commitment that Basin governments have made.

Don’t get me wrong. This is tough. It’s the pointy end of the Plan, and it’s a watershed moment.

Governments must work hard and stay the course.

They must continue to work together …  to deliver what is tough for some, but necessary for the whole nation.

They must deliver what they have started because it’s only going to become harder, and you only need to look outside to see why.

There are two certainties as we move into the second decade of the Basin Plan.

One is climate change. We know the climate is changing.

The CSIRO has developed several plausible scenarios that describe the change in climate on our rivers and our groundwater.

Under the most probable scenario, rainfall would decrease by 10 percent by 2050 compared with the historical climate of the Basin. River flows could fall by 20 to 30 percent.

That’s 30 percent less water in our rivers.

The science tells us we face an uncertain future, and that managing for more extreme events will be essential.

None of us can do the things that we have always done in the same way and expect the same results.

All of us must continue to adapt if we are to leave a sustainable Basin for future generations.

The other certainty is we must deal First Nations people into water management in a real and meaningful way.

This continent is home to the oldest continuing living culture in the world. Something we all should take pride in, as Australians.

A culture that has adapted to massive changes in climate over millennia and highly variable water availability – and not only survived, but thrived.

What we can learn from First Nations people regarding water management we are only just beginning to conceive.

All of us need to work harder to provide a place for First Nations people in water management decision making.

We need to rethink how we incorporate Indigenous knowledge into the way we manage water in the Basin.

We need to do this in a respectful and culturally appropriate way, and we need to do this for all Australians.

This, I see, is the great unfinished business of water management in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Which brings me to the Basin Plan Review.

In 2026 we will review the Basin Plan.

This legislated review will take a comprehensive look at what is working, what isn’t, and what parts of the Basin Plan need to be – and should be – changed. After all it’s an adaptive plan.

Ultimately it will be the Basin governments that will make the decisions on future amendments to the Plan.

Part of our job is to gather the best evidence base and advice to support their decision making.

10 years of lived experience is fundamental to future decision making.

There is 10 years of new climate science to consider.

There is 10 years of tapping into the collective wisdom and science of our First Nations people.

The Murray–Darling Basin Plan has strengths, and it has weaknesses.

The Plan is not perfect, but it’s the Plan that we have. It’s the Plan we, as a nation, committed to.

There is no Plan B.

The MDBA will work with those who have a stake in a healthy system to build on the strengths and improve the weaknesses.

We will do this in the national interest.

So, how can the Plan be improved to address future challenges, including climate change?

How can the Basin Plan’s regulatory framework be simplified?

How do we get the best outcomes for all social, cultural, environmental, and economic values of the river?

How can the Murray–Darling Basin Plan be improved to recognise First Nations values in water management and enhance their involvement?

In addition, we need to consider how the delivery patterns of consumptive water have changed, as well as how the management of water for the environment has evolved over the past 10 years.

We also need to think about how we can integrate water management with other natural resource management activities, to achieve strong environmental outcomes.

Water management in the Basin – indeed anywhere – is based on cooperation.

Cooperation between the Commonwealth, the ACT and four State governments.

Cooperation between communities, First Nations and local governments.

And cooperation between irrigators, conservationists and tourism operators.

Now more than ever, cooperation and commitment must be the cornerstone to our approach to adaptive water management in the Murray–Darling Basin.

When the then Prime Minister John Howard announced the Basin Plan in January 2007 he said:

“Tackling Australia’s water security is an immense challenge. It requires a comprehensive, bold plan. It requires a commitment of resources and above all requires people to think as Australians above any other parochial identification or consideration.”

This statement is as true today as it was 15 years ago.

The Basin’s rivers don’t stop at the border, or indeed at the end of your valley.

The Murray–Darling Basin is a connected, living ecosystem that supports a myriad of values.

All these values hold merit. All of these values matter.

Combined, these values form part of our identity as Australians.

We must not lose sight of the balance between values that the Basin Plan is endeavouring to strike.

As one of the architects of the Basin Plan, previous chair of the MDBA Craig Knowles said, if we get this balance wrong, our environment will tell us. She is the toughest negotiator of all.

It’s inevitable that governments and communities will need to continue to make hard decisions.

As the MDBA, we are committed to gathering the best available evidence to help inform these decisions and sharing what we learn along the way.

We have learned much during the past 10 years in terms of what we do, how we do it, and what we need to do in the future.

All governments, the MDBA and the array of communities that depend upon our rivers, must continue listening and learning and find ways of doing things better. We must keep on adapting.

We need to ensure all interested parties have a seat at the table and are being heard. Not just by governments and decision makers but by each other, because in my experience, that’s when we see transformative change.

The MDBA wants to see a resilient Murray–Darling Basin, whose communities are ready for their future.

Rivers. For Generations.

It’s a collective endeavour.

Thank you.

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