Bill McCormick, Science,
Technology, Environment and Resources
Under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, the Minister will make adjustments to limits on water use in the Murray-Darling Basin during the next year.
The Commonwealth will be contributing to the construction of new dams around Australia through grants and concessional loans.
use in Australia varies year by year. In 2013–14, 23,500 gigalitres (GL)
were used, principally for irrigation (13,400 GL or 57%) and urban use (3,900
GL or 17%).
Australia’s annual rainfall is highly
variable, both in volume and geographic distribution. This variability
affects runoff, streamflow, groundwater recharge and water availability for
human use. There is high rainfall in parts of the northern tropics, the east
coast and western Tasmania. However, 40% of Australia has rainfall of less than
300 millimetres (mm) per year. Rainfall has also declined in some areas due
to the failure of autumn and early winter rains, with a
decrease since 1950 of 15–40 mm per decade in south-western Western Australia
(WA) and 20–50 mm per decade in
eastern Australia and Tasmania.
While 72% of Australia’s water runoff occurs in
northern Australia, coastal Queensland and Tasmania, only 7% is generated in
the Murray–Darling Basin (MDB) where more than two-thirds
of Australia’s irrigation water is used.
Water harvesting, storage and distribution have
therefore been a vital factor in urban and regional development in Australia.
The building of dams and associated irrigation areas has increased water
availability but has also damaged the environment, causing the long-term
ecological decline of rivers, wetlands and floodplains. The community and industry has suffered from the adverse
environmental effects and poor water quality.
The decline in river health in the Murray‑Darling
Basin (MDB) triggered the development of the Basin Plan 2012, which sets environmentally sustainable limits for the consumptive
use of water. The Murray-Darling
Basin Authority (MDBA) is implementing the Basin Plan in concert with the Basin states (Queensland, New
South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, Victoria and South Australia) and
A fundamental challenge for the Basin Plan will be
achieving the long-term average sustainable
diversion limit (SDL) of surface water of 10,873 GL per year for urban, industrial and
agricultural use in the MDB. To reach the SDL, the Australian Government has
committed to recovering
2,750 GL of water for the
environment by 2019. This recovery will be achieved through
both investment in infrastructure efficiency (for at least 600 GL of the water)
buybacks. By 30 June 2016, 1,981.4
GL, or 72% of this water target, had been recovered.
The Basin Plan contains a SDL
Adjustment Mechanism which allows the Minister for
Agriculture and Water Resources, on the advice of the
MDBA, to change the SDL up or down by up to five per cent (544 GL) as long as
environmental and socio-economic outcomes are not compromised.
The 2,750 GL of environmental water can be
decreased by up
to 650 GL through ‘supply measures’ that increase the quantity of water
available to the environment (for example, by reducing evaporation losses at
storages). Alternatively, it can be increased by up to 450 GL through
‘efficiency measures’ that recover additional water for the environment by
making water delivery systems for irrigation more efficient. There are also ‘constraints
measures’ that ease or remove structures or rules that constrain the
delivery of environmental water.
Basin states provided an agreed package of supply,
efficiency and constraint measures under the SDL adjustment mechanism to the MDBA in May 2016. The MDBA will publish a draft of the proposed SDL adjustment in late 2016 or early 2017. The
Minister will then table the final SDL adjustments, which will be disallowable
Dams and water infrastructure projects
Over the past twenty years the construction of significant
dams has been limited for a variety of reasons. These include lack
of economic viability and environmental
CSIRO study of potential dams in northern Australia found that the best
sites had been already developed and the next best sites have limited areas of soils
suitable for irrigated agriculture. It did identify other potential dam
locations, including up- and downstream of the existing Burdekin Dam, in the
Herbert River Gorge in Queensland and in the Fitzroy catchment in WA. The
report estimated that if 15 of the ‘most promising large dams’ outside of
national parks and other protected areas were developed, they could irrigate
In 2013 the Coalition committed
to plan for new dams. The 2014 Water Infrastructure Options Paper identified
31 water infrastructure projects with potential for Commonwealth
involvement, including those already funded by the
The Commonwealth has established
Water Infrastructure Development Fund, with $59.5 million allocated
to 40 feasibility studies. Funding of $450 million will be available from
2017–18 for water infrastructure projects, including $170 million for northern
In addition, the $2 billion National
Water Infrastructure Loan Facility, announced in the 2016
Budget, will support major water infrastructure projects proposed by states
and territories with private sector partners over 10 years. Concessional loans
aim to stimulate and accelerate economically viable dams, weirs, pipelines and managed
aquifer recharge schemes. The first five years of the loans will be
interest only, with the principal and interest repaid over the next ten years.
The 2016 Coalition election
policy also commits the Commonwealth to providing funding for other water
infrastructure projects, including up to $130 million for the Rookwood Weir in
Queensland (if economically viable).
Bureau of Meteorology, Water in Australia 2013-14, December 2015.
C Petheram et al, Northern rivers and dams: a preliminary assessment of surface water storage potential for northern Australia, CSIRO Technical Report, Australia, December 2014.
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