Frequently asked questions

1. The Basin Plan

Q: What is being proposed?

A: The final Plan sets new, sustainable diversion limits (SDLs) on surface and groundwater resources in the Murray-Darling Basin. In part, it requires that 2750GL of water is recovered for the Basin's many rivers and wetlands. Under the Plan, these Sustainable Diversion Limits (SDLs) will come into force from 2019, allowing communities time to adjust.

The Plan also includes an SDL Adjustment Mechanism, new rules on water trade, an environmental watering plan and a water quality and salinity plan. Overall the Plan will deliver benefits to both Basin rivers and communities beyond the outcomes associated with the 2750GL SDL reduction.

Q: Explain the disallowance process particularly time frames.

A: The Basin Plan may be disallowed by either House of Parliament within 15 sitting days of tabling. Such a move must be foreshadowed through a motion within the first 15 days of tabling and the debate held within a further 15 day period.

Q: Some have been calling for a 4,000GL reduction. Isn't this what is required to restore the Murray?

A: The MDBA's modelling of a 3200GL SDL reduction, which factored in potential to relax constraints, clearly shows the achievement of key Basin Plan targets for iconic environmental sites along the Murray River and for the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth without the need for SDL reductions as high as 4000 GL.

2. SDL Adjustment Mechanism

Q: Why is an SDL Adjustment Mechanism needed?

A: The Murray-Darling Basin Plan must include a Sustainable Diversion Limit. This is the maximum amount of water that can be taken for agriculture or urban uses without impacting on key environments within the Basin. The MDBA has judged that a 2750GL reduction to surface water use is the right balance between the needs of the environment and the needs of Basin communities, and that this balance reflects the reality of current river system constraints.

Recognising that an opportunity exists to build further on the environmental and socio-economic outcomes contained in the Plan, Basin Water Ministers asked for an improvement to the Plan by incorporating an SDL Adjustment Mechanism (see below).

Q: What is the SDL adjustment mechanism?

A: The SDL adjustment mechanism adds flexibility to the Basin Plan by allowing the Authority to consider, in 2016:

  • Environmental works projects and changes to river operating rules proposed to deliver the same or improved environmental outcomes with less water; and
  • Investment proposals intended to increase the volume of water to be recovered for the environment in ways that entail a neutral or beneficial socio-economic impact (such as on-farm efficiency works).

Q: How and when will an SDL Adjustment take place?

A: Proposals to adjust the SDL in these ways will be considered by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority in 2016. Once the Authority has made its decision, it will provide a notice of the SDL adjustment for decision for consideration by the Minister. If adopted by the Minister, it will then be tabled in the Parliament as a disallowable instrument.

3. Special Account Bill – Additional Environmental Water & Constraints Removal

Q: Can you detail the Government's recent announcement to commit $1.77b for acquire additional water and address river constraints?

The Prime Minister recently announced a new $1.7 billion Government programme to:

  • deliver an additional 450GL to achieve better environmental outcomes for the Basin through projects which have neutral or improved socioeconomic impacts ($1.5 billion); and
  • to remove or relax key constraints that limit the environmental outcomes that can be achieved under the Basin Plan ($200 million).

Q: How can we be sure that these additional outcomes will be delivered?

A: Legislation to create a Special Account reflects the Government's commitment to achieving enhanced environmental outcomes for the Basin over the long term independent of any changes in government or annual budget processes. This is the strongest form of commitment that the Government and Parliament can provide to funding these new measures.

Q: How will recovery of this water be impact-neutral?

A: The Basin Plan requires that recovery of additional water under the SDL adjustment mechanism must avoid detrimental impacts. An good example is through funding for new on-farm efficiency programs, where farm productivity will be maintained or improved through the use of modernised irrigation infrastructure, and where participation is entirely voluntary.

Q: When will this money be spent?

A: New water recovery initiatives under the Special Account can only commence once the SDL adjustment mechanism has been applied in 2016.

While some constraints initiatives may commence in the short-term, the majority of works will roll-out in later years once detailed studies and design work has been completed and any necessary approvals obtained.

Q: Does this mean less spending on infrastructure projects elsewhere in the Basin?

A: No. The Government is already committed to recovering at least 600GL in water savings through Basin infrastructure projects under the existing Sustainable Rural Water Use and Infrastructure Programme.

Q: What are the barriers and constraints you intend to remove? How can the government guarantee the river constraints can be removed or overcome?

A: The delivery of environmental water to where it is needed is sometimes constrained by things like low-lying bridges, limited outflow capacity in dams, and a need to minimise impacts to landholders on floodplains. By investing in works to raise bridges and fix dam outlet structures, by negotiating the purchase of flood easements with landholders, and reviewing operational rules and procedures, our environmental water holdings will be able to be used and delivered much more effectively in the future.

4. Environmental 'Offsets'

Q: What are environmental offsets?

A: There is considerable potential for environmental works on floodplains and wetlands like the Chowilla Floodplain regulator, changes to river operations or rule changes to deliver the Basin Plan's environmental outcomes with less "held" environmental water than is provided for under the Basin Plan. This means more water can remain available for consumptive use than would otherwise be the case. Provided these 'offset' projects do not impair the environmental outcomes achievable with 2750GL, the Authority will be able make a downwards adjustment to the Basin Plan's 2750GL recovery target.

Q: Are these water offsets real?

A: Many consider that there may be enough 'offset' measures to reduce water recovery efforts by 650GL. Importantly, the Authority will subject each of these proposals to a detailed assessment to ensure that they can demonstrate that they can deliver the Plan's environmental outcomes with less water than is currently provided for under the Basin Plan..

Q: Can the Government give an assurance that least 650GL in environmental offsets will be achieved?

A: No – not at this stage. Offset proposals have yet to be developed for assessment under the SDL Adjustment Mechanism. Discussions between the Commonwealth and Basin states are now well advanced on an agreed protocol for developing measures for consideration by the MDBA under the SDL Adjustment Mechanism.

Q: What happens if the projects to achieve 650 GL of offsets aren't achieved?

A: In 2016, the Commonwealth's water recovery strategy will be reviewed to provide for water purchase to 'bridge the gap' of any shortfall below 650GL of offsets.

5. Water Recovery Strategy

Q: What is the Water Recovery Strategy?

A: The Water Recovery Strategy (the Strategy) sets out the Australian Government's approach to water recovery in the Murray-Darling Basin.

It outlines how the Australian Government will deliver its commitment to bridge the gap in a way that restores the Basin to health-delivering a positive outcome for the environment, for the economy and for Basin communities.

For more information see: The Water Recovery Strategy for the Murray-Darling Basin

6. Commonwealth investment programmes

Q: What is the total amount now committed to the Basin to establish the Plan?

A: With the new funding, more than $12 billion has now been committed for specific initiatives to support water reform in the Murray-Darling Basin.

7. Climate Change

Q: Why has climate change and its impact been overlooked in the Basin Plan until now?

A: Climate change has not been overlooked by the Authority. On the contrary, the Authority seriously considered the matter and determined that the actual effect of climate change during the term of the first Basin Plan (10 years) would be impossible to distinguish from the Basin's natural climate variability.

One of the Minister's suggestions to the Authority is that further consideration of climate change risks be considered in any future review of the Basin Plan. The earliest possible date at which the Authority may be asked to review the Plan is 2017.

8. Environmental Water

Q: What have we done so far with the water for the environment?

A: More than 1,327 gigalitres of Commonwealth environmental water has been delivered in 18 catchments of the Murray-Darling Basin. While improving the health of the river is a long term process and the full results will take some years to emerge, early monitoring indicates that Commonwealth environmental water has provided a wide range of ecological benefits such as better health in river red gums, and improved habitat condition for the river's plants and animals.

Q: Is the government going to flood roads, infrastructure and private land?

A: No. While natural flood events will continue to occur in the Basin from time to time, decisions relating to the release of water from dams, including the release of environmental water, rest with the relevant state government authority or, in the case of the River Murray, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority under rules agreed by Basin states. Commonwealth environmental water does not contribute to inundation of private land without landholder agreements in place, nor will it do so in future.