Getting the Murray–Darling Basin Plan back on track according to the Productivity Commission

Improved accountability would boost progress on the Murray–Darling Basin Plan, according to the Productivity Commission.

The interim report of the 2023 Murray–Darling Basin Plan implementation review finds the Australian Government’s recently proposed extension of the Basin Plan timeframes is necessary but won’t be enough.

“In the five years since the last Commission review, very little progress has been made on water recovery, or on supply and constraints-easing measures,” Associate Commissioner Chris Guest said.

“The plan is central to securing a healthy working Basin. Basin governments need to be more transparent and accountable for delivering the plan.”

The Australian Government funds the states’ supply projects. Unviable supply projects should not continue to receive funding.

“The Australian Government Minister for Water should report annually to Parliament on the progress, feasibility and cost to date of supply projects, and decide on their future,” Commissioner Joanne Chong said.

Despite the prospect of more time, a significant water recovery shortfall is likely. The Australian Government should commence a renewed program of water recovery, using the most cost-effective methods, including staged voluntary water entitlement purchases. This should occur alongside a commitment from Basin governments to support communities to adjust, where warranted.

A new government-owned corporate entity that operates at arm’s length from governments would be one option for undertaking water recovery and implementing some supply projects.

The report also finds that further efforts should be made to ease river constraints on environmental water delivery.

“Constraints-easing measures are critical to the success of the Basin Plan. Governments should implement them through a dedicated, standalone program,” Commissioner Guest said.

The Commission also says that more should be done to recognise the values and deliver on the interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Basin Plan matters.

“Basin governments need to improve how they partner and share decision making with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and publicly report on this,” said Commissioner Chong.

“The Basin and the people who depend on it need this Plan to work. All Basin governments, under the leadership of the Australian Government, need to pull their weight,” Commissioner Guest said.

Read the full interim report and provide a comment or submission at

Key points
The Murray–Darling Basin Plan (the Basin Plan) is a significant reform that aims to deliver a healthy, working Basin to benefit the environment, Basin communitiesand current and future generations. Under the Plan, Basin governments agreed to recover 2,750 GL/y of water for the environment (~20% reduction in water for consumptive use) and an additional 450 GL/y through efficiency measures.
Some progress has been made implementing the Basin Plan since 2018. Water resource plans – which set out how much water can be taken from the system and how it is managed (and are fundamental to implementing the Basin Plan) – are now all in place in Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and the ACT. Environmental water management frameworks are also in operation, and water recovered for the environment – and partnerships to deliver this water – have improved river flows and connectivity, and ecosystem and biodiversity outcomes.
But the Basin Plan will not be fully implemented on time or on budget. Key supply measures (infrastructure works and rule changes that offset water recovery) will not be delivered and projects to ease constraints on river operations are progressing slowly (a shortfall of ~315 GL/y is possible). The program to recover an additional 450 GL/y of water via efficiency measures will also fall well short of the target (only 26 GL/y has been recovered). And 13 water resource plans in New South Wales, due in 2019, are still not in place.
A new agreement to deliver the Basin Plan will, if legislated, provide more time and allow new supply measures and voluntary water purchases. But this will not be enough to implement the Basin Plan in full. Weak accountability and other underlying risks to Basin Plan implementation remain. Existing funding is also not sufficient.
The Australian Government must take greater responsibility for implementing the Basin Plan, in partnership with Basin states. Constraints‑easing measures are critical to achieving environmental outcomes from recovered water; they are complex projects and should be progressed separately to the 2,750 GL/y target. The Minister for Water should report to the Australian Parliament by June 2024, and annually after that, on the cost‑effectiveness and feasibility of existing and new Commonwealth‑funded supply projects. The Australian Government should develop a renewed approach to water recovery, including staged voluntary purchases. Waiting until reconciliation (now proposed for the end of 2026) to address the shortfall will perpetuate uncertainty for Basin communities and risks further increasing the cost of water recovery. Future water recovery should occur alongside a commitment from Basin governments to assist communities, where warranted, to transition to a future with less available water. Adjustment assistance should build on the evidence about what programs work and the regional economic context. A new government-owned corporate entity that operates at arm’s length from governments is an option for undertaking water recovery and implementing some supply projects.
Recognising First Nations values and delivering on First Nations interests requires Basin governments to improve how they partner and share decision‑making with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Basin governments should publicly report on how water resource plans deliver on First Nations objectives and outcomes, and strengthen the capacity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to engage in Basin Plan activities.

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