Experts weigh in on MDB plans

One of Australia’s leading science academies is calling for an overhaul of the Murray Darling Basin’s governance system as part of a 50-year vision for Australia’s largest water region.

The basin, which extends over a million square kilometres and crosses five sub-national borders, is governed by a series of water laws and 11 government bodies.

The current Australian government recently introduced amendments to how the system is managed and in February undertook the first buybacks of water entitlements at an estimated cost of $205m. The recent changes were made to extend timeframes to achieve water targets.

But the next review of the Basin Plan isn’t due until 2026 and now experts from the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) are calling on governments to take a longer view of the system’s management.

In a newly released summary statement, the ATSE calls on governments to prioritise an immediate investment in climate resilience measures and calls for an independent national body to be reinstated to administer the Basin amid other governance changes, similar to the defunct National Water Commission.

It also calls for a greater scientific contribution to decision-making along the Basin, centralised and open access data collections, a water market agency to standardise water trading and more focus on cultural water rights.

As part of the release, ATSE also commissioned 9 peer-reviewed essays that envision the next 50 years of Basin management. Broadly, they encompass 3 perspectives: the need to start preparation for climate impacts on the system now, to enact sustainable practices ahead of the next review of the Basin Plan in 2026, and to improve economic and agricultural development opportunities, which are aligned to future water availability.

“The Murray Darling Basin is Australia’s most productive agricultural basin, by far the most important agricultural basin,” says Professor Stuart Khan, head of Sydney University’s School of Civil Engineering. “Purely from an economic perspective, we all benefit greatly from a thriving, sustainable productive Murray Darling Basin. So we need to get that right from that perspective.”

Data referenced by the ATSE in its report shows the Basin economy is worth $230bn, across the tourism, industrial, commercial and mining sectors, as well agriculture.

“There’s obviously a very important social perspective, we rely on the Murray Darling Basin for recreation, for enjoyment, for tourism, [this] comes back to economic outcomes as well.

“There are cultural values in the Murray Darling Basin that indigenous people that may or may not live in the Basin have an attachment to, and we all benefit from a thriving biodiversity and ecosystem and environment in Australia.

“Managing the basin will help us to manage climate change, making sure that our wetlands don’t dry out and start to become carbon emitters, so maintaining a healthy environment, healthy economic activity and healthy social opportunity with thriving communities absolutely benefits all Australians.”

A spokesperson for the ATSE confirmed it had been in discussions with the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) following the release of its essay series and described its intent as being “to provide holistic, independent advice to a range of ministers as well as the Murray Darling Basin Authority. It’s an independent contribution, we hope it will inform future plans”.

The release of the report comes a week after the MDBA convened a 2-day leadership summit in Sydney for 115 stakeholders including Traditional Owners, industry and community leaders in preparation for the 2026 Basin Review. The MDBA is yet to release its report following the event.

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