Bewildering Basin Plan ‘unknown unknowns’ you must know

Murray Darling Basin Plan leaves regional communities with big questions

About 2100GL of water has recovered, largely through buybacks and on-farms schemes. The 2750GL recovery target should be met now that 605GL worth of offset projects is underway. Meanwhile, 450GL of ‘upwater’ needs to be found. The question is, how and where the will it come from and what will be the social and environmental impacts?

About 2100GL of water has recovered, largely through buybacks and on-farms schemes. The 2750GL recovery target should be met now that 605GL worth of offset projects is underway. Meanwhile, 450GL of ‘upwater’ needs to be found. The question is, how and where the will it come from and what will be the social and environmental impacts?


Four years in. Another six to go. How much more can we take?


The inimitable words of former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ring true for the $13 billion Murray Darling Basin Plan.

When briefing the press on Iraq’s reputed possession of weapons of mass destruction Mr Rumsfeld said “as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know”.

He went on to say there were “known unknowns” - or “things we do not know”.

So far, so good.

Mr Rumsfeld’s next utterance was an instance classic, and a perfectly confusing description of the big question mark hanging over irrigators, communities and the environment from Charleville in Queensland to Goolwa in South Australia.

“There are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don't know we don't know… it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones,” he mused.

Now, I can guess what you’re thinking. Not another bloody article on Basin Plan politics.

We’re four years in, with another six to go until the 2024 deadline. How much more can we take?

I’ll confess I share the same thought - even if it is part of my job.

But there’s a Murray-cod’s mouthful which remains unexplained and if you live in the Basin, you value its flora and fauna, or depend on its produce, you have a vital stake in the known-unknowns.

So, here goes. Some of the biggest unresolved Murray Darling issues:

Sustainable diversion limit offset projects

There are 37 big infrastructure works like weir changes, floodplain irrigation as well regulation changes across the Basin proposed by the states, and approved for funding by the Murray Darling Basin Authority.

They’re meant to deliver an environmental outcome equivalent to recovering 605 gigalitres of real water.

The rubber is hitting the road now on project design, as the MDBA kicks off stakeholder consultation about how water management and flora and fauna will be impacted.

We’ve seen little more than desktop studies to date, so expect to see a few unknown-unknowns on how the environment, and farmers, are impacted.

And the kicker – if the projects don’t deliver the expected savings by 2024, there’ll eb direct buybacks to make up the shortfall.

Water compliance

All the states signed a compact to develop transparent and consistent regimes for compliance and enforcement.

NSW has paved the way, throwing cash at new staff to form a bigger compliance unit, with tougher water theft penalties and more rigorous irrigation metering requirements.

Queensland recently completed a review of its compliance regime.

It will be an open question for all states whether their governments follow through with funding to create new compliance regimes that meet the MDBA’s requirements.

Water Resource Plans

The Basin Plan set a 10,873GL long-term, Basin-wide annual water use limit. Water Resource Plans divvy-up the overall allocation on a valley-by-valley basis and each state has their own version of local water plans.

But as with water compliance, the Basin Plan requires local plans are consistent with the Commonwealth regulations and the deadline of July next year is racing up.

Again, NSW is furthest down the track, enacting new laws in Parliament this week. They’re causing grief for irrigators and environmentalists.

Farmer groups say Ministerial powers to embargo pumping with no compensation devalue their property rights. There’s even be a whiff of a group action in the courts. Environmentalists argue the balance still tips too far toward irrigation.

While each state has its idiosyncratic considerations, there’ll be challenges in all jurisdictions, and a rush to meet the 2019 deadline.


The 450GL recovery bucket has to be filled to beef-up flows into SA. This ‘upwater’ comes on top of the 2750GL of ‘downwater’, which includes offset projects (see above) that goes to environmental assets, as well as contributing to overall flow.

A caveat was written into the Basin Plan that upwater recovery couldn’t cause negative socio-economic impacts.

Upwater recovery is yet to kick off. Initial plans assumed upwater would come from on-farm schemes funded by the Commonwealth, where farmers swap water entitlements for infrastructure funding so they can use their remaining water more efficiently.

But job losses have mounted as the Basin Plan rolls, making for tougher times in local communities, adding to scrutiny on the the current criteria which calculates socio-economic impacts on a farm-by-farm basis.

After much lobbying from action groups, the states agreed last week to rejig the socio-economic criteria to assess the impacts on community scale, and to focus their efforts on recovering water from off-farm sources such as stormwater harvesting and industrial users.

It remains to be seen how much water really is available from off farm sources, and if states can ignore the not insignificant number of farmers who want to participate in on-farm schemes.

But wait! There’s more unknown-unknowns

Cap factors, which are a complicated assessment tool to measure how ‘real’ water recovery has been to date, valley-by-valley, across the Basin. They’ve just revised the criteria and when the new calculations come out, some areas which were fully recovered could be required to find more water.

Then there’s the goal for indigenous communities to buy 900ML of unallocated surface water, and 10,000ML of groundwater, in NSW and Qld, to use for cultural and economic purposes - backed with $20m for community projects.

Who could overlook plan to release the carp herpes virus, which would benefit native fish and wetlands - but risks polluting rivers with tonnes of rotting fish and causing widespread fish kills with deoxygenated water.

And don’t forget SA’s Royal Commission which kicked off hearings last week. The Commissioner has accused the Basin Plan of being unlawful and the MDBA and Federal Water Department are seeking an injunction to avoid summonsed to give evidence.

And then the real doozy is the peak flow rate of 80,000GL a day across the SA border, required under the Plan, from time to time, to blast the sand and salt out of the Murray Mouth. The question many are asking is can that much water be moved without washing away bridges and flooding communities? And how much will the works cost?

The concept won’t be proved until the water is gushing over the border, and Southern Basin towns are safe and dry.

The story Bewildering Basin Plan ‘unknown unknowns’ you must know first appeared on Farm Online.


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