People in towns and cities across Australia see the impact of drought on television or Facebook from the comfort of their couches and empathise.
However, for those living in the northern Murray–Darling Basin and the Darling River, drought is a harsh reality they are living every day.
Towns like Wilcannia and Walgett are on bore water, and landholders with entitlements to pump water from northern rivers to sustain their stock and to use in their homes are faced with dry river beds.
Of course, when there’s not enough water to meet people’s needs there is an impact on the environment as well. Recent fish deaths in the Lower Darling are an example of this, along with the numerous algal blooms in stretches of the river that still have water.
People faced with the daily reality of drought are angry and disappointed in what they see as mismanagement of the system. They’re looking to governments, and the Murray–Darling Basin Authority, to do more.
Inflows to the Darling and its major tributaries from the north have been well below average, and for some valleys, like the Namoi, inflows are the lowest on record. Storage across the northern basin is at 20 per cent capacity.
As we get a better understanding of the likely effects of climate change on the basin, there is evidence to suggest we can expect more droughts in coming years and decades.
Dry periods are getting longer and rainfall distribution is changing so the cooler months are drier, giving catchments less opportunity to start the hotter months in good shape.
All people who rely on the rivers of the Basin for their livelihoods and wellness need to have confidence in the compliance regime. Historically this has not been the case.
Big strides have been made in the past year especially in NSW with the establishment of the Natural Resource Access Regulator, which has two successful prosecutions under its belt.
However, while the Basin Plan has been painted by some as part of the problem, it is actually our best chance for achieving a sustainable and more resilient Darling River.
It is not possible to drought-proof the basin, but the plan can help us prepare for future droughts by holding water for the environment separate from water for irrigators, and increasing system health so it can recover from drought more quickly.
It sets a sustainable level of take for each catchment and it requires water for critical human needs is set aside before other uses.
The Basin Plan also gives us a once in a generation opportunity to change the way the Menindee Lakes are managed.
The Menindee Lakes project has multiple objectives, two of which concern improving the reliability of low flows in the Lower Darling and supporting the critical role of the Menindee Lakes in native fish breeding. NSW is developing the project and has started consultation with communities.
To realise the benefits the Basin Plan can deliver will take a clear demonstration of positive actions on the part of governments to regain the trust of communities who, for too long, have felt forgotten and let down by successive administrations.
Ultimately, those living and working through the reality of drought in the northern basin and along the Darling want the same thing as I want, and the same thing the Basin Plan will help deliver: a healthy and sustainable river system. My hope is that we can re-establish the trust needed to work together to achieve that.
- MDBA chief executive, Phillip Glyde