The introduction on the website savethemurray says it all really:

The River Murray in its natural state was an unreliable supplier of water and during droughts it could be reduced to a chain of saline ponds. A regulated river provided a reliable source of water and gave confidence in the Murray’s development. A succession of dry years from 1895 to 1902 emphasised the need for drought protection to enable further development in the Murray Valley. In 1915, after 13 years of negotiations, the governments of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia signed the River Murray Waters Agreement to establish entitlement flows. Two years later the River Murray Commission was established to put the Agreement into effect.

Governments state and federal have been talking about managing the Murray ever since but the vagaries of nature still dictate that on occasions parts of it end up like saline ponds. And when it does it is not surprising that there are disputes about who should get what share of a scarce resource.

For more than a century the Federal Government pleaded and prodded State Governments to settle such matters between themselves and when John Howard decided to do so he would have known that history was against him being any more successful than his prime ministerial predecessors.

Not that success was necessarily his objective. The $10 billion he promised to spend in the Murray Darling Basin was to be spread out over many years. Mr Howard would be long gone from Canberra before anyone could judge the benefits.

This was one of those classic political decisions made to suit a short term electoral time table. There was no prior discussion with the State Governments and the political aim was to show that a Coalition Government in Canberra could do things while State Labor Governments could merely talk about doing things.

Perhaps what surprised the Coalition Government was that all the states apart from Victoria quickly agreed to the proposal to hand power over to the Commonwealth. The political reality that there were no State Labor seats in Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia affected by the proposal was not factored in. Those state Premiers saw they had nothing to lose and everything to gain by handing this problem over to someone else.

Only Steve Bracks in Victoria could see the potential for losing a seat or two in his state parliament from copping the Commonwealth’s money. For Labor federally there was not one seat it could possibly win in the whole of the Murray-Darling basin.

If John Howard’s advisers thought that the promised spending on the Murray would somehow improve the Coalition’s environmental credentials they were also mistaken. The environment was an issue that Labor owned before the announcement and after it.

For people other than those directly affected by the shortage of water in the river system there was little interest in whether orange groves were about to die. The only indirect impact was to increase climate change as an electoral issue and that worked in Labor’s favour not the Coalition’s.

Mr Howard made one last half hearted attempt on 20 September to blame the new Victorian Premier John Brumby for continuing the intransigence of his predecessor but the statement was barely reported. The $10 billion of promised government spending quietly was dropped from the election agenda.