Lessons Australia's water reform offers in science, politics and sustainable watersheds

August 21, 2019 | Water in the West | Insights

Jose Bolorinos

Against the backdrop of a changing climate, governments in many of the world’s semi-arid regions face the difficult task of balancing the water needs of growing populations with those of the environment. This balancing act is especially challenging in Australia’s largest river basin, the Murray-Darling, which spans one million kmand supplies 40 percent of the country’s agricultural production. The successes and failures of Australia’s recent reform of the Murray-Darling Basin hold valuable lessons for policy makers in California and elsewhere who are likely to grapple with the environmental repercussions of extreme drought in the future.

The Murray-Darling has been described as Australia’s major natural resource, housing a variety of threatened, water-dependent ecosystems in its vast network of semi-arid rivers and wetlands, including more than 60 freshwater fish species, 98 waterbird species and other plant and animal life adapted to its variable streamflow (Banks & Docker, 2013). By the 1990s, development of irrigation infrastructure and overallocation of water rights put these fragile ecosystems under severe stress. The historically unprecedented 1997-2009 Millennium Drought brought renewed urgency to prevent the basin’s wholesale ecological collapse. In response, the basin’s four state governments and the Australian federal government began a reform process starting with the 2007 Water Act, culminating in the 2012 Murray-Darling Basin Plan (MDBP).

The MDBP is considered one of the most comprehensive basin-scale water management plans ever attempted. It has now been seven years since the plan was legislated and many parts of it were scheduled for full implementation by July of this year. Unfortunately, several recent studies suggest that it is failing to achieve its key environmental objectives. Although there are many lessons offered by Australia’s experience with the Murray-Darling Basin, one of the most important relates to the role sound scientific guidance can and should play in sustainable watershed management.

Figure 1: The Darling River has its flows reduced by diversion of water, affecting downstream river red gums as well as land-holders dependent on the river flows. Photo credit: UNSW


The Murray-Darling Basin Plan

A key feature of Australia’s 2007 Water Act is that it created a single federal agency, the Murray Darling Basin Authority, to manage the basin, using best-available science. The first task of the Basin Authority was to draft and release a 2010 guide, which relied on a peer-reviewed assessment to recommend basin-scale water withdrawal limits to Australia’s parliament as it negotiated the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. The Water Act gave the Basin Authority more responsibilities than gathering scientific knowledge and making recommendations, as it was also tasked with implementing the 2012 Basin Plan and monitoring its performance, a reflection of the binding scientific guidance it was intended to provide.

The MDBP identified two primary ways to achieve water savings. First, the federal government set aside $3.2 billion to directly buy water withdrawal rights from willing sellers in Australia’s highly developed water markets. Second, the government would fund investments to improve the irrigation efficiency of the basin’s agriculture. Half the savings from these efficiency improvements would be credited to the government as additional water rights. All water rights acquired under the plan would be managed by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, a separate federal agency in charge of using its portfolio to buy and release water to the benefit of the basin’s environment. 

In some ways, the design of the final basin plan reflects the hard political constraints the federal government faced in mounting a coordinated, basin-scale management effort. Australia’s constitution grants its states ultimate authority over its water so the basin’s four states had to agree to cede authority to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and its plan. Agricultural interests hold more sway in some state governments and irrigators were generally opposed to any changes that might limit future availability of water. Thus, $5.8 billion in funds for irrigation infrastructure improvements was offered as a way of “purchasing” state government cooperation (Ross & Connell, 2016). It is worth noting that, while infrastructure improvements received almost twice the funding allocated to direct buybacks of water rights, they comprised just 40 percent of the plan’s total savings by 2018.

The basin plan’s savings objective is itself a stark reminder of the limited role science often plays in environmental policy making. The final 2012 plan mandated water withdrawal reductions of 3.4 million acre-ft per year by 2019, substantially below the original Basin Authority’s 2010 peer-reviewed guidance recommending at least 4.8 million acre-ft per year of reductions – considered the lowest possible limit for any chance of success. 


Figure 2: Map of Australia's Murray-Darling Basin. Photo credit: Murray-Darling Basin Authority

Evaluating the Murray-Darling Basin Plan
Even if the savings were inadequate and involved a massive financial give-away to irrigators, some view the Murray-Darling Basin Plan as a huge success. Its planned withdrawal reductions are still substantial, representing roughly 25 percent of long-term average use. Moreover, as others note, the subsidies offered to state governments reflect a recognition that most relevant water management expertise resides with state regulators, whose cooperation is necessary for the plan to succeed. The most up-to-date information available indicates that as of June 2018, the MDBP had achieved an estimated 2.8 million acre-ft per year in savings, meaning it has already delivered 75 percent of its target.

By other measures, however, the basin plan has fallen far short of the objectives of the 2007 Water Act, which prioritized protection of the basin’s ecosystems. Events since 2012 suggest a wholesale capture of the reform effort by agricultural interest groups opposed to the plan. In 2015, Barnaby Joyce, who served as Australia’s Minister of Agriculture since 2013, was chosen to lead Australia’s Agriculture and Water Resources ministry, the parent of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. Joyce has been accused of tilting the basin reform effort towards irrigators, most notably by prioritizing subsidies for irrigation efficiency and slashing additional water buybacks by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, which were capped at 1.85 million acre-ft per year in 2015 and halted altogether last year. Then, an amended MDBP was approved in 2015 that reduced the withdrawal reduction target to 2.6 million acre-ft per year, from the original 3.4 million acre-ft per year legislated in 2012. Thus, even if the final 2012 Murray-Darling Basin Plan was a momentous agreement, it has clearly been vulnerable to subsequent interference by the stakeholders opposed to it.

Unfortunately, the plan’s implementation and performance has also fallen short of expectations. The 2012 agreement gave state governments substantial leeway to prepare their own regional management plans. Despite that flexibility, plans thus far produced by state governments do not meet the water withdrawal reduction targets of the 2012 MDBP. For example, a 2018 study of a sensitive floodplain in the southern basin found that none of five water flow targets were being met, partly because state agencies failed to fulfill promises of removing structural barriers that would allow the river to flood the plain. The state government of New South Wales in particular has shown open hostility to the MDBP and has even resisted enforcing the market rights of environmental water obtained under it. 

Whether because of insufficient water savings or marred implementation, recent evidence suggests that the MDBP is not meeting environmental objectives: surface water flows in the basin are 40 to 60 percent lower than expected, with no measurable improvement since implementation began; ecosystem health has continued to decline among 23 of 40 waterbird species surveyed and recent reports of fish kills in the southern basin continues to raise doubts that it is delivering.

Figure 3: The Coorong and Lower Lakes at the mouth of the Murray-Darling Basin are key sites for waterbirds, including Cape Barren geese. Photo credit: UNSW

Lessons Learned
Given its fraught design and implementation, what lessons can the 2012 Murray-Darling Basin Plan offer about the role of scientific guidance in sustainable watershed management? First, the Australian reform effort shows that – even with a clear legislative prerogative like that enshrined in the 2007 Water Act – science cannot occupy every seat at the negotiating table. For all the lip service paid to sound scientific guidance, the 2012 MDBP reflects the harsh reality of a federal government bending toward agricultural interests while also facing state regulators opposed to the plan.

Some of the plan’s other flaws offer a second crucial lesson: those negotiating on behalf of science should do so with sound principles and best available methods. Unfortunately, Australia’s experience shows that this has not always been the case. Outside observers have noted, for example, the water savings from the federally-funded irrigation efficiency improvements that secured state cooperation were grossly overstated by bad hydrologic accounting. In addition, a recent inquiry into alleged mismanagement by the Basin Authority found that climate change projections were not even taken into account when developing the basin-scale water withdrawal limits set in the original 2010 basin guidance, before negotiations with state governments had begun. These are just some mistakes suggesting that sound scientific principles did not always guide the agenda pushed by the federal actors ostensibly proceeding in the interest of the basin’s environment.

A third important lesson offered by the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is provided in a five-year independent assessment of the 2012 Basin Plan released recently by Australia’s federal government, which identifies serious flaws in the Basin Authority’s monitoring and enforcement of withdrawal limits. The report attributes these failures in part to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s dual roles as the agency responsible for both implementing the 2012 MDBP and evaluating its own progress, recommending that the authority’s monitoring and enforcement functions be separated from its executive functions to prevent conflicts of interest. 

In essence, the Murray-Darling Basin serves as a lesson about the institutional architecture best suited to channel scientific guidance towards more sustainable outcomes. A centralized scientific authority can alleviate the tendency towards “combat” science, where each party funds and promotes studies supporting their view in a debate. However, excessive centralization of responsibilities can hamper institutional accountability when delivering on a reform.

Perhaps the greatest lesson offered by the Murray-Darling Basin is that, even if science wins the day in the legislative process, it is just the first step on the long path to a sustainable outcome. For one, executing and monitoring a new water resource management plan can be unfathomably complex, especially at the scale of an entire river basin. More than that, those advocating sound science must exert ongoing pressure to protect a legislative achievement and hold policy-makers accountable for failing to deliver on it. As the Murray-Darling Basin case shows, those benefiting most from over-extraction of water will continue to fight to weaken any reform effort. An alert and engaged public is necessary to protect the interests of the environment. 

Luckily, recent media coverage has raised awareness of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan’s failings and lead to renewed public pressure re-asserting the sound scientific guidance it needs. Earlier this year, Australia’s Labor opposition party introduced a measure to restart direct water buybacks by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder. Although the right-of-center National party won this year’s federal elections, both major parties support breaking up the Basin Authority into an executive agency and a regulator to improve performance monitoring. For all its failings, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is still the best chance Australia has for halting the wholesale destruction of one of its most precious natural resources. 



Banks, S. A., & Docker, B. B. (2013). Delivering environmental flows in the Murray-Darling Basin (Australia)—legal and governance aspects. Hydrological Sciences Journal, 59(3–4), 688–699. https://doi.org/10.1080/02626667.2013.825723
Crabb, P. (2010). Managing Australia’S Major Natural Resource: the Murray-Darling Basin. Canadian Water Resources Journal, 18(1), 67–78. https://doi.org/10.4296/cwrj1801067
Ross, A., & Connell, D. (2016). The evolution and performance of river basin management in the Murray-Darling Basin. Ecology and Society, 21(3). https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-08664-210329