Applying rules in dry times
Running the Murray River has always been an exercise in sharing water — between three states that own the water and between the entitlement holders who make use of it.
That means governments working together through an agreed set of rules so decisions are transparent.
The rules of the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement (as distinct from the MurrayDarling Basin Plan) were set out by the state governments and first built into Commonwealth law in 1915.
They ensure the NSW, Victorian and South Australian governments can confidently allocate water to their entitlement holders in the Murray River, knowing that reserves are set aside for critical human needs.
While each state has its own system of allocations, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s job is to share the water between states, store it and deliver it when it’s ordered by industry, by irrigators and, these days, by environmental water holders.
Underpinning the availability of water in the Murray system is the principle of conserving as much water as possible.
When times are dry people may expect to see less water in the river. However, after several months of drought people on the Murray River know there’s plenty of water moving through the system at the moment.
Water entering the Murray above Albury is shared 50:50 between Victoria and NSW.
Downstream of Albury, all the water entering the river from Victoria belongs to Victoria. All the water entering from NSW belongs to NSW, with the exception of the Darling River which shares water 50:50 between NSW and Victoria when water held in Menindee Lakes is plentiful.
Under the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement, NSW and Victoria provide South Australia with its entitlement.
Some of the flow currently in the Murray is heading to Lake Victoria where it will be accessed in times of high demand by irrigators and environmental holders.
MDBA river operators need to move water around, as is happening now, so it’s accessible during peak demand. That means river levels are higher as we prepare for summer while also meeting present day needs.
Dams right across the basin are being drawn down as the hotter months begin — at the moment they are 49 per cent full — and water managers monitor carefully to anticipate the needs of the coming season.
Currently, NSW has determined that there’s sufficient water to provide 97 per cent allocation to those who hold the most secure licences (high-security) on the Murray.
Unfortunately those who hold lowsecurity licences (general security) on the Murray currently have no water allocated, and won’t have until NSW is assured they have enough water to support and deliver a one per cent allocation — and there isn’t yet.
While NSW Murray low-security water users continue to have a zero allocation this water year, the water carried over from last year can still be used. It comprises more than half of NSW’s share of water in the Murray system at the moment.
Irrigators own about 80 per cent of that carryover water, which they can decide to use or sell. The environmental water holders own about 20 per cent.
Meanwhile there is reasonable water availability in Victoria with allocations in the two main systems making steady improvement through the season.
That’s because what rain we have had has fallen mainly in Victoria, where there are different arrangements for allocating water to licence holders.
I recognise that continuing zero allocations for NSW low-security licence holders make it particularly challenging to make business decisions about what to plant going into summer.
Should the drought continue none of us know with certainty what the state of water resources will be at the start of the next water year — that depends on how much it rains in the next six months.
I urge everyone who uses water to be planning ahead for all scenarios, including the possibility that allocations do not improve and conditions stay dry.
By Murray-Darling Basin Authority chief executive Phillip Glyde