Crikey intern Jane Vashti Ryan writes: The debate over how to allocate water from the Murray Darling Basin is raging once again.

The official Murray Darling Basin Plan is due to be released this afternoon and if you sit quietly and listen, you’ll hear environmentalists and farmers battling it out in Canberra, and on the banks of that vital river system.

Details of the plan were leaked yesterday, pointing to a big reduction in water entitlements for farmers, a fact which has drawn the ire of regional Australia in a spectacular fashion.

But what are the facts around these proposals? Is it a case of environmentalists making unrealistic demands at the expense of Australia’s all-important agricultural industry or are farmers just struggling to grasp the realities (and the environmental fall-out) of a century of irrigation?

Before the consultation process begins, here’s a quick overview of the facts, figures and key players in the war being waged for the Murray Darling Basin.

The Background

The Murray Darling Basin sits across four states — Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. It covers 14% of Australia — over a million square kilometres — generates $9 billion per year for the Australian economy and feeds 20 million people.

So that’s the good bit.

But in the last 100 years irrigation of the Murray Darling Basin has increased by 500%, which isn’t proving to be the most sustainable of methods. A combination of agricultural planting and irrigation has led to increased salinity, soil erosion, wide-spread blue-green algae blooms and reduced numbers in native wildlife.

The Players

The government:

When the Water Act 2007 came along, so did the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), which plays a central role in this story. The MDBA was given:

“…the functions and powers, including enforcement powers, needed to ensure that Basin water resources are managed in an integrated and sustainable way. The MDBA will oversee water planning considering the Basin as a whole, rather than state by state, for the first time.”

The primary task given to the MDBA was to create a Murray Darling Basin Plan, a plan that would unite pragmatism, good sense, scientific nous and a listening ear, in order to work out a solution to the problems facing the Basin and the farmers living off it.

Leaked details of the plan suggest the government will be calling for a reduction in irrigation of up to 37%. And not everyone is happy.


The Australian Farmers Federation (AFF) came out swinging in response to the leaked figures yesterday. CEO Ben Fargher told Crikey:

“We want to make sure that the numbers are a draft and that the consultation process is genuine because there’s absolutely no way these numbers can be final.”

And AFF President David Crombie said in a statement yesterday:

“Neither the MDBA nor the federal government has articulated a clear vision for the Basin – specifically, the social, economic and environmental outcomes the Basin Plan is seeking to achieve.

“For farmers, the Basin Plan isn’t an ‘agriculture versus the environment’ debate. It requires balanced considerations – between farm production, environmental needs and local community impacts.”

Cotton farmer Michael Eagan has also weighed in on the debate. His family has farmed the land around Warren in NSW since the early 1800s and he relies heavily on irrigation to turn a profit.

“It all comes down to stranded assets. If we can’t utilise the land we’ve developed for irrigation we’ll lose out,” he said.

“The direct human cost of reducing irrigation on farms is about one man for every thousand mega liters. Then there’s the multiplied effect of what isn’t produced – work in packing sheds and cotton gins.”


The Australian Conservation Foundation’s healthy rivers campaigner Dr Arlene Harriss-Buchan reckons reducing irrigation levels is the best way to restore balance. She told Crikey:

“In less than a century, water extraction from the Basin’s rivers has increased by 500 per cent. This is unsustainable and is driving an ecological crisis.”

The AFC are looking forward to a robust debate and extensive community consultations.


Minister for Water Tony Burke:

“…it is not a final plan, it’s a guide to a draft of the plan…”

Shadow Minister for Water Barnaby Joyce:

“Well, you won’t have an irrigation community if some of these numbers that are being bandied around at the moment go forward.”

Greens spokesperson on the Murray Darling Basin Senator Sarah Hanson-Young

“We’ve known for years that the system has been over-allocated, now it’s time to get the balance right.”