Stuart Bunn

After several years of drought, tensions over water sharing have intensified, pitting environmental groups against farmers, north against south, with many stakeholders more upset with the government plan to fix the problem than the drought itself. Farmers are calling it a “man-made drought,” complaining that water needed for crops is going to fish instead and that any that is allowed to flow to the ocean is wasted. Much of the water is now diverted upstream to fuel agricultural production on over a million hectares of farmland. But it is also needed to sustain the lower estuary and its wildlife, including several species listed as endangered and federally protected. The board responsible for water management strives to balance these and other environmental obligations with the needs of farmers – and no one is happy with the result. Compounding matters is the growing recognition that conditions are likely to become drier in the future and the acknowledgment that all sides will have to give up something.

The setting in question is the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, a key battleground in California’s water wars – but it will no doubt resonate with those familiar with the challenges of the Murray–Darling Basin. Similar stories abound for rivers around the world, where growing demand has increased competition among water users (including the environment), and especially in regions such as California and southern Australia, which face a hotter, drier and more variable climate. Overlaying these biophysical constraints are the complicated institutional arrangements that enable sharing water across political boundaries.

Social concerns about the declining health of freshwater ecosystems and the associated loss of the essential services they provide are growing and are well justified. Globally, there is little evidence that we will meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 6.6: to “protect and restore water-related ecosystems.” Wetlands are vanishing three times faster than forests, and freshwater biodiversity is declining at more than twice the rate observed in terrestrial or marine ecosystems. Continued decline in water quality and ecological health in the Murray–Darling Basin during the 1990s and the millennium drought were a catalyst for significant water reforms in Australia, especially the recovery of water for the environment. There was political and social consensus that the health of this critical asset was in peril.

Steve Posselt travelled the length of the Murray–Darling by kayak (by necessity, with wheels) in 2007 at the height of the millennium drought to highlight the plight of the river in his book Cry Me a River. Margaret Simons’ essay of the same name takes us on a very different journey. Drawing on a broad range of interviews and discussions, including with landowners, bureaucrats and academics, her story seems to have the elements of a good tragedy – a tragic hero (the river) cursed by fate and a fatal flaw (not enough water), the struggle between good and evil, and the sense of tragic waste as the hero meets his logical destruction in the final act, with things working out poorly for everyone.

Simons highlights the challenges faced by Basin communities, the environment and those charged with managing the system. She acknowledges the difficulty of negotiating a new sustainable diversion limit to meet the primary goal of the 2007 Water Act, to “protect, restore and provide for the ecological values of ecosystems.” But despite this, she devotes little attention to the good work being undertaken by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office or to the perspectives of ecologists concerned for the health of the river.

Simons’ essay provides insight into the complicated arrangements for water sharing among the states and the ongoing efforts to maintain the political compact that is the Basin Plan. Above all, the essay conveys a sense of hopeless struggle to understand the complexities of water management and to reach agreement on how best to share the water at a Basin-wide scale. However, it stops short of finding workable solutions to these wicked problems.

Sustainable water management is fiendishly complex. Although the woes of the Basin are often in the news, Australia has earned a strong reputation overseas for its approach to water management. The 2007 Water Act ensures the Basin is managed in the national interest, building on nearly 100 years of reform since the first River Murray Water Agreement was signed. Getting the states to agree to a whole-of-Basin plan that addresses competing state interests and rebalances the share with the environment was no small achievement. Other countries acknowledge this: indeed many, including the United States, India, Brazil and China, have looked to Australia for lessons that can be learnt.

The Plan must ensure decisions are made in the national interest. One of the key challenges in reaching a common perspective – highlighted by Simons – is that “everyone downstream is a wastrel, and everyone upstream is a thief. Only I, the person drawing water in this spot, for these crops, in this way, truly understands the value of the water and how to use it.” Although we speak of the “Basin community,” as Simons notes, they don’t act as one because they struggle to recognise a common interest.

The Basin Plan sets a new sustainable diversion limit: the amount of water that can be taken from the river system for consumptive purposes. The final amount of water to be recovered was agreed as part of the political settlement and is less than the initial estimates informed by science. Significantly, most of the water for the environment has already been recovered and all water recovery has been voluntary – either purchased direct, or as an outcome of investments in irrigation efficiency. We know this adjustment has not been without its impacts. Many small rural communities are feeling the loss of the water and require additional support.

Although Basin communities have struggled with the rapid pace of reform, the Plan does take a long-term perspective. We’ve always maintained it was a starting point and adjustments would be needed in both the short and long term. The evaluation of the Basin Plan in 2026 allows for larger adjustments, but smaller ones can be made before then. For example, water resource plans set out how the states will adhere to the new sustainable diversion limits and were meant to be in place by mid-2019. Some of these plans have been delayed and there have been allowances made to give states more time to complete them.

New information is emerging as the NSW government undertakes its Healthy Floodplains project, which aims to reform the management of floodplain harvesting through licensing, monitoring and regulation. This new information will be built into the Plan.

Climate change poses a massive challenge for the Basin and will undoubtedly require a revisit of the broader settings of the Plan, with new data revealing that inflows in the Southern Basin have almost halved in the past twenty years. The irrigation industry, rural communities and the environment are all going to have to adapt and make the transition to a quite different – likely hotter, drier and more variable – climate. The Basin Plan doesn’t end in 2026 and will be a blueprint for the way ahead. Drought, bushfires and pandemics make this job tougher, but there is no Plan B.

Although the Authority has the role of river operator on behalf of the southern states, its primary role under the Water Act is to oversee and regulate water use within the Basin. This is a stewardship role that requires the states to stay the course and remain committed to the Plan. With six governments and seven houses of parliament across the Basin, maintaining productive relationships among the parties is of paramount importance.

We agree fully with Margaret Simons’ finding of the importance of rebuilding trust – we acknowledge that is no easy task. It is multifaceted and requires the effort and commitment of all governments. It means greater transparency in reporting, clearer and more open communication and engagement with communities, and a genuine promise to embrace opportunities to adjust and adapt.

We are determined to call out any backsliding from these commitments. We will ensure water resource and water-sharing plans are consistent with the Basin Plan, and that there is full recovery of water. We are strengthening our compliance program and ensuring that water users are doing what they are meant to do so the community can have more confidence.

We will continue on our path of regionalisation. By mid-2021, one-third of our workforce will be dispersed in the Basin region. This is our commitment to building stronger working relationships with Basin communities.

Eight years in, we’ve made good progress implementing the Plan – a difficult but necessary reform. We can’t lose sight of the achievements. Around 2100 gigalitres of water have been recovered for the environment and there are early signs of improvement in river health. But we still have some way to go.

The Plan offers our best hope for a transparent and fair approach to managing the water resources of the Basin in a more sustainable way. We will only achieve that if all parties involved stay the course and adjust and improve their operations within the agreed framework of the Plan. The story of the Murray–Darling doesn’t have to be a tragedy.


Stuart Bunn is the director of the Australian Rivers Institute at Griffith University and the acting chair of the Murray–Darling Basin Authority.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 77, Cry Me a River. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 78, The Coal Curse.


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