The recent fish deaths in the Lower Darling river system at Menindee were a devastating sight and unfortunately, with further algal blooms expected, there is a high likelihood of more to come. Disappointingly, some people have seen the event as another opportunity to divide those living in the Murray-Darling Basin and pit graziers against irrigators, communities against communities and governments against governments. During this time, it is crucial that any debate concerning the management of water in the Murray-Darling Basin is based on evidence and an informed understanding of the current circumstances.
Some people attribute the low water availability on a range of factors such as increased development and non-compliance upstream, as well as on the present river management rules. While all contributors, the harsh reality is that the Northern Basin is in the grip of a prolonged drought and it is a significant contributor to this latest issue. Currently, 58% of Queensland is drought declared (down from 87% in March 2017) and rainfall over the past two years in several areas in the Northern Basin is the lowest on record.
The cotton industry has been unfairly singled out, even though Australian cotton growers are world leaders and have improved water use efficiency by 40% over the last decade. The continued drought has also had a major impact on this industry with the national crop expected to be at least half of last season. On the Barwon-Darling this year no cotton has been planted in Bourke (NSW). Upstream at Dirranbandi (QLD) – home of the well-know Cubbie Station – only 300 hectares of cotton has been planted, which is a mere 1 per cent of what can be planted in a good season. Just like water for the environment, if it doesn’t rain there is no water for irrigated crops.
On the jurisdictional front, the Queensland Government has also taken significant steps to ensure water management is supported by the right infrastructure, policy and enforcement settings. The Warrego, Paroo and Nebine catchments was the first, and remains the only accredited water resource plan in the Basin. (Water resource plans are an integral part of implementing the Basin Plan, as they set new rules on how much water can be taken from the system, ensuring the sustainable diversion limit is not exceeded over time.) The government also tabled the Final Report of the Independent Audit of Non-Urban Water Measurement and Compliance last year in a pivotal step for the ongoing water management in the state.
With all the factors at play in the Murray-Darling Basin, it is not possible to ‘drought-proof’ it, and unfortunately these events are not always avoidable in nature. But the Basin Plan can help us be better prepared for droughts and minimise the impact of events like this. The plan is the best chance to ensure we better manage a scarce resource, hold water for the environment while ensuring a sustainable level of consumptive take, and address damaging socio-economic impacts.
Just like droughts, the visual impact of events like this are confronting and they give people a lot of leverage to push a point that may not be correct. For the sake of all people who live in the Murray-Darling Basin and rely on its rivers, a blame game fuelled by emotive language and uninformed opinion is particularly unhelpful and there is no place for it.