River Yarns: The Murray-Darling Myths

Introducing River Yarns

With assistance from the Walkley Foundation, McPherson Media Group has commissioned Jane Ryan, a consultant with long experience and deep knowledge of water and resource management in the Murray-Darling Basin, to unravel the complex issues surrounding the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Jane’s brief is to do so without the bias and hyperbole that has accompanied most commentary on the plan since its inception 14 years ago.

At a time when the Federal Government seeks to amend the plan to give effect to election promises to South Australia, Jane’s analysis will canvas what the plan has achieved already in the long history of resource management in the basin.

She explores the shortcomings of a political compromise on ‘a number’ for water recovery, when what is really required is a nuanced approach to securing the original ambitions for the plan.

In this first article in the series, Jane recounts the history of the many well-intentioned initiatives by basin states since Federation and what ‘The Plan’ has attempted to add to them.


The recent announcement by the Federal Government of a brand-new plan for the Murray-Darling Basin seems to be the next kick of the political football.

The politics make it look simple – South Australia is the only victim, nothing happened to change the balance of environmental water recovery before the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and the condition of the basin is catastrophically bad. Obviously, none of this is true.

And so, here we go again – assertions made, impressions reinforced and no actual facts from those supposedly responsible for implementing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. I mean on-the-ground operational people – not the ministers, the elected politicians, not the high-level government officials and not even the advocates.

The ones that are trying to get the results that the majority of us want them to get – there are not many, after all, who don’t want to see more birds and fish thriving in the Goulburn and Murray river systems.

There are also some inconvenient truths we need to face up to if we really want to continue to see environmental responses in our most important river systems over the long term. Simplifying the conversation does help us to feel we’re on top of what success in the Murray-Darling Basin looks like.

Unfortunately, like much in our modern society, what’s usually reported is the tip of the iceberg.

So to quote my Grandma’s favourite musical, let’s start at the very beginning – it’s a very good place to start!


Yes, it’s ancient history, but understanding why a Commonwealth-funded, legislative approach was initiated in the Murray-Darling Basin is helpful. Today’s conversations spring from different interpretations of what the basin plan agreed to in 2012.

We suggest it’s essential to look back at some of the context to understand where perspectives diverged.

Droughts and floods are part of life in the Murray-Darling Basin. The Murray-Darling Basin Plan followed the millennium drought (1997 to 2010), when record low flows occurred for 13 years. (AAP Image/Supplied by the National Portrait Gallery, Joel B. Pratley)

Did you know that the millennium drought started in 1997?

We all know this continent is one of droughts and flooding rains, which launches water management into an interesting roller coaster of hydrology, or our flow patterns.

After a particularly wet 1990s, Victoria and much of the southern connected basin went into an unsettling stretch of extremely dry years. Despite expecting to come out of them any day, this persisted for 13 years.

What was different from the usual ups and downs of annual rainfall, many farmers could tell you, was the missing autumn break.

CSIRO backs up their anecdotal impressions – their monitoring told of a 25 per cent reduction in autumn rainfall, compared with small percentages in other seasons. The inflows just weren’t the same, and any winter rainfall was only contributing to surface moisture, not the average runoff into our rivers and storages.

Most reports about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan will begin by discussing the unprecedented run of dry years in the millennium drought from 1997 to 2010 and the impact it had on our waterways and our communities.

Mostly they talk about the impact on the Lower Lakes at the bottom of the system: an environmental crisis that required intervention by the Federal Government in what had been, up to this time, constitutionally a state responsibility.

Unless you lived and worked through this unprecedented drought/period, it will be hard to appreciate its ferocious impact on communities, the environment and economies – more than half of Victoria experienced the lowest 13 years and four months of rainfall on record.

In 2006, only 200 Gl (a gigalitre is one billion litres) flowed into Lake Eildon, the main supply for Goulburn system irrigators with a capacity of 3334 Gl. By 2007, Melbourne was on Stage 3 water restrictions, with water storages falling to record lows of 25.6 per cent full.

Right across the basin, rainfall and river flows had plummeted, with the unprecedented continuation of dry conditions challenging all water managers in every catchment.

Water users across the basin had never seen such dry conditions – most towns across northern Victoria were on Stage 4 restrictions, water was carted to some towns to keep up essential supplies, and allocations dropped to below 50 per cent for four years.

The environment suffered badly because most environmental flows then came from unregulated flows or dam spills that had ceased during the drought.

Despite some commentators revising well-documented history, every part of the southern basin was affected – environmentally, economically and socially.

The states were coming together to ask the Federal Government for help because this climate crisis demanded a concerted response.

Perth water managers had been some of the first to talk about the ‘step change’ in climate and water availability seen there from the 1980s as it got hotter and drier. They built Australia’s first desalination plant in 2005 for a secure water supply, not relying on rainfall and inflows to dams.

The idea of an observable climate impact being around then and now, rather than in 2040 as predicted by CSIRO, was not broadly understood by science, let alone communities.

The Darling River traditionally supplied about 40 per cent of water to the Murray mouth. In the past decade, it has supplied less than 15 per cent, mainly due to over-extraction. (AAP Image)

Did you know that water is still a state responsibility within the Constitution?

Management of water – whether it’s for the environment, household taps and toilets, growing food or fibre or watering stock – has historically been seen as a local, regional and even state responsibility to provide for communities.

Historically, as now, First Nations communities have a strong relationship with River Country. There have always been conversations within and between these communities about the ways to live, work and play with these landscapes.

Thousands of generations later, the new federation of states spent time negotiating responsibilities and came up with a Murray-Darling agreement in 1914. The new Federation agreed in the Constitution that water would be the states’ responsibility.

Managing water, as a balance of community values, has also been largely a policy and protocols rules-based affair. Some understanding and agreement on rules is critical in how water is allocated and delivered. Where decisions have been made and not been agreed to by users, a legal or political recourse has produced an overcorrection, often with perverse unintended outcomes.

Most water specialists will identify the litigious approach in the United States, or the arguably benevolent dictatorship approach in China, Iran or Singapore, as not meeting community expectations.

Since the Commonwealth Water Act was drafted quickly at the peak of the drought emergency in 2007, the water sector (which now includes Commonwealth bureaucrats) has had to manoeuvre swiftly to incorporate new, stringent legislative strictures while adjusting to environmental, economic and social developments in an ever-changing water landscape.

Old river gums at Barmah. Wetlands in the southern basin have recovered very well since the end of the drought. Photo by Chris Gordon

Did you know that since 1994 no new water licences have been issued in the southern connected Murray-Darling Basin?

In 2007, the Howard Government’s Murray-Darling Basin reforms scripted a new narrative in water management, overlooking much of the work done before and during this action.

So rather than the unprecedented conditions of low rainfall and its impact on the basin, popular rhetoric was then (and unfortunately is now) that it was not the global challenge of a drying climate and growing population combined with changing values – rather, it was all laid on institutional failure.

Most national commentators bought into the political rhetoric, hailing this as the start of environmental management in the basin and that the reforms were necessary because of the basin states’ ‘over-allocation’ of water resources.

At the other end of the commentary, several international experts identified that Australia’s approach to water management of collaborative policies and regulation has been the envy of the world.

They pointed to institutional actions before the basin plan had been contemplated – for instance, the 1994 cap on any new water licences or the First Step of Living Murray in 2002, where works were built and 500 Gl of water was recovered.

There is no doubt that water availability has been considered optimistically in a wet century and with an economic lens. How we understand and value water for ecological needs within a healthier river system continues to change.

Much of this is about historical community values, with inevitable change happening, and at this time when communities are grappling with climate change impacts and First Nations’ sovereignty.

Ten locks and weirs regulate flows along the Murray River, allowing navigation and mitigating flooding. Before they were installed, the river would periodically stop flowing in summer. Photo by ncox1585

Did you know before the Murray-Darling Basin Authority was formed in 2008, there was a collaborative decision-making body?

Academics and catchment managers know that getting landscape-scale environmental outcomes is difficult and complex at the best of times. But it has been done, as our region knows, when facing potentially crippling impacts from risks such as salinity and water quality in the 1980s and 1990s.

As a result, our region’s leaders have travelled internationally and influenced theory and practice in managing these “wicked” problems.

They all require collaboration – between governments at every scale, between public and private landholders, including Traditional Owners and between scientists and catchment managers that use it on the ground.

Centralising decisions in a Commonwealth statutory body was one of the biggest changes in the Howard Government’s reforms of the Murray-Darling Basin. Getting rid of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission changed the landscape forever – it involved centralising investment, decision-making and regulation.

Decision-making for joint responsibilities was now with state politicians through their seats on the Ministerial Council rather than regular, technical forums that had accountabilities in regulation and legislation.

Next week: The Water Act and the basin plan.

About the author

Jane Ryan was deputy chief of staff to former Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville, and has worked at all levels of government in water resources and catchment management, including senior roles as director of Rural Water Policy and Programs, strategic engagement manager for River Health and consultation manager for the Northern Region Sustainable Water Strategy.

During the millennium drought, Jane was involved in the development of the key water policies that remain the cornerstone of water management in northern Victoria, including environmental water recovery targets, carryover arrangements and changes to allocation water policy for the Goulburn and Murray systems in response to climate change.