Murray river with trees and birds

The Murray River in Australia has been depleted by agriculture.Credit: Southern Lightscapes-Australia/Getty

Five years ago, the Murray–Darling river system was on life support. Farmers were siphoning too much water from the system — Australia’s largest — reducing flows and increasing salinity. Now, after an ambitious multi-state effort to make sure that more water stays in the rivers, some wetlands are once again saturated enough to support native wildlife. In the Lower Lakes, near where the Murray River empties into the Southern Ocean, the flowering plant Ruppia tuberosa has sprouted and the royal spoonbills (Platalea regia) have returned.

But upstream, much of the rest of the Murray–Darling river basin (MDRB) is still struggling for water. State and federal governments signed an agreement in 2012 to spend Aus$13 billion (US$9.9 billion) on a plan to reallocate 3.2 trillion litres to the environment by 2024. Now, the first independent assessment of that plan, from the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, a consortium of the country’s leading water experts and environmental scientists, concludes that progress has stalled and the initiative is at risk of failing.

Water managers in the United States and other countries grappling with similar challenges in balancing the needs of people and the environment are watching the MDRB with interest. David Feldman, a water-resources specialist with the University of California, Irvine, says although there’s been some progress in the MDRB, such as reducing salinity, other environmental improvements haven’t followed. A key lesson from this assessment is that these types of big, complex fix for over-allocated river basins require patience and persistence, he says. “We simply do not know for certain how long it can take for genuine environmental progress to occur.”

Murray River seen from the air, 2015.

The Murray River is part of the Murray–Darling River Basin, which produces one-third of Australia's food crops.Credit: Auldist/Getty

The MDRB stretches across four states and covers an area greater than France and Germany combined. Considered Australia's breadbasket, it produces about one-third of the country's food crops. The recovery plan aims to maintain the basin’s agriculture and economy while providing enough water to restore its degraded rivers and wetlands. But in the review, released on 30 November, the Wentworth Group warns that although the government has spent more than Aus$8 billion on the plan so far, a constellation of problems threatens to undermine it.

Two-thirds of the 3.2 trillion litres allocated for the environment has already been returned to the system, but the report found that most of the savings happened before the 2012 agreement, as a result of national water policies adopted in the mid-2000s. In the five years since the plan was adopted, a weakening of these reforms by successive federal and state governments has slowed progress, the report says.

For example, government purchases of water from farmers willing to sell has helped to keep more water in the river for the environment. But federal officials have moved away from these buybacks in recent years “in favour of slower, more expensive and uncertain" investments in water-efficiency infrastructure, says Jamie Pittock, an environmental scientist with the Australian National University in Canberra and a co-author of the report. A 2010 Australian government report found that infrastructure improvements cost three times as much as buybacks, per unit of water saved.

A spokesman for the Australian Department of Agriculture and Water Resources said it makes no difference whether the water is recovered for the environment through buybacks or infrastructure programs. He defended the use of these programs, saying they increased irrigation productivity and investment in farming communities.

Stalled progress

But water experts complain that state and federal officials have also abolished entities that helped keep the plan on track, such as a programme to audit river health, nixed in 2013, and an independent commission that assessed water sharing, shuttered in 2014. “The stalling of the plan appears to be associated with higher demands from agriculture and irrigation users and a lower value being placed on environmental demand,” says David Karoly, a climate scientist at the University of Melbourne who contributed to the report.

Carl Binning, executive director for environmental management at the Murray–Darling Basin Authority, which was established to create and implement the plan, disputes the report’s claim that the region’s recovery is falling short. “We’re starting to see the environmental outcomes that were intended,” he says. The authority is in the middle of its own five-year review.

There is still hope of achieving the plan’s objectives, the report concludes — if state and federal officials improve compliance and ensure that the total amount of water allocated for the environment is delivered.

One bright spot is the basin’s water-trading market, a cap-and-trade-style system that allows water permits to be sold or bought within a seasonal water use limit. Water experts say it has succeeded in encouraging water to be traded for crops with a higher value per unit of water used. For instance, during droughts, farmers growing water-intensive cotton can lease water to farmers growing less thirsty fruit trees, says Pittock.

International lessons

Although the report is “very thorough and objective”, Feldman says, it missed the opportunity to discuss how large-scale reforms in water-sharing could be funded without big injections of taxpayer money. Funds from water markets could be used to compensate communities for the jobs lost when farmers sell their water, he says.

Feldman says other countries looking for lessons from Australia would be wise to establish independent authorities that can operate with autonomy regardless of which party is in government.

As policymakers and water managers continue to debate reforms in the MDRB, they will also have to deal with climate change, Karoly says. “This will certainly lead to pressure to reduce the allowances for environmental flows.”