Frequently asked questions


On 21 September 2015, responsibility for water policy and resources was transferred to the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources - Administrative Arrangement Order made on 21 September 2015.

This website will be updated to reflect these changes.

1. The Basin Plan

Q: What does it do?

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 2750 gigalitres (GL) 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, a requirement that all catchments have a water resource plan in place by 2019 that meets a Basin-wide set of standards, 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 2750 GL SDL reduction.

Q: Explain the disallowance process, particularly time frames.

A: The Basin Plan and any amendments to 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 Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s (MDBA) modelling of a 3200 GL 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 4000GL.

2. SDL Adjustment Mechanism

Q: Why is an SDL Adjustment Mechanism needed?

A: The Murray-Darling Basin Plan includes 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 2750 GL 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, social and economic outcomes contained in the Plan, Basin Water Ministers asked for the Plan to incorporate 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 MDBA 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 MDBA in 2016. Once the MDBA has made its decision, it will provide a notice of the SDL adjustment for decision for consideration by the Commonwealth Water Minister. If adopted by the Minister, it will then be tabled in the Parliament as a disallowable instrument.

3. Water for the Environment Special Account - efficiency and constraints measures

Q: What is the Water for the Environment Special Account?

It is a $1.775 billion Australian Government package to:

  • deliver an additional 450GL to achieve better environmental outcomes for the Basin through projects which have neutral or improved socio-economic impacts ($1.575 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: The Water for the Environment Special Account reflects the Government's commitment to achieving the recovery of the additional 450 GL of environmental water and relaxing constraints. Achieving these outcomes will lead to the enhanced environmental outcomes for the Basin over the long term. Ensuring the funding is available over the 10 years to 2024 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 result in neutral or improved socio-economic outcomes. Participation of water users in projects that recover water under the new on-farm efficiency programs will be entirely voluntary, meeting the Basin Plan tests for neutral or improved socio-economic outcomes.

Q: When will this money be spent?

A: New water recovery initiatives under the Water for the Environment Special Account will commence in 2015-16 and run until 2024.

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 Program.

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 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 achieve equivalent environmental outcomes to those obtained with 2750 GL, the MDBA will be able make a downwards adjustment to the Basin Plan's 2750 GL recovery target.

Q: Are these water offsets real?

A: Many consider that there may be enough 'offset' measures to reduce water recovery efforts by 650 GL. Importantly, the MDBA will subject each of these proposals to a detailed assessment to ensure that they can demonstrate that they can deliver equivalent 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. The final offsets outcome for the SDL adjustment won't be known until the final package of adjustment projects that are agreed by all Basin governments are notified to the MDBA by 30 June 2016 and the MDBA then complete modelling of the package of the notified projects in 2016.

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 recovery 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 funding for the SDL Adjustment Mechanism, almost $13 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 MDBA. On the contrary, the MDBA 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 MDBA 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 MDBA 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: 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:

Native fish survival, breeding and migration; native waterbird breeding and feeding habitat; improved the condition of vegetation communities such as river red gum forests and woodlands; improved water quality through the flushing of salt, sediments and excess nutrients out of the Basin through the Murray Mouth; and, connected rivers, wetlands and floodplains to improve habitat for breeding and migration of native animals supporting native fish breeding.

Information on the volumes, locations and outcomes of Commonwealth environmental water delivery is available at: Commonwealth Environmental Water Office

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 MDBA 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.