Water Crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin: A ustralia Attempts to Balance Agricultural Need with Environmental Reality

AuthorJoshua Axelrod
PositionJ.D. candidate, May 2014, at American University Washington College of Law
by Joshua Axelrod*
Overuse, pollution, increased salinity, and drought
are threatening the water resources of Australia’s
Murray-Darling River Basin (“MDB”), a drainage
of twenty-three rivers that is home to more than two million
people1 and generates nearly forty percent of Australia’s agri-
cultural revenue.2 To address these threats, the Murray-Darling
Basin Authority (“MDBA”) submitted the Guide to the Basin
Plan (“Guide”) for public comment in October 2010, sparking
controversy between the government and MDB’s agricultural
communities.3 The Guide’s comprehensive sustainable water
management strategies seek to balance human and environmental
water needs.4 In an attempt to minimize the socio-economic
impact of policy changes, the Australian government is buy-
ing water allocations from farmers and investing in irrigation
infrastructure improvements.5 Despite public opposition to these
actions, aggressive sustainable water management strategies
must nonetheless be implemented, and tied to environmental
outcomes, if the MDB is to remain a key agricultural producer
in the future.6
Efforts to implement sustainable water use policies are recent
innovations in Australia.7 The Australian states and territorial
governments took signif‌icant steps to reform the management
of overused rivers in 2004 with the ratif‌ication of the National
Water Initiative.8 Since the Initiative, the Australian government
has moved quickly to preserve scarce water resources. The 2007
passage of the Water Act gave Australia’s national government
the legal authorization to create a centralized, independent
agency9 to draft, implement, and enforce water use policy for
the MDB.10 Soon after, the newly created MDBA began its work
on the Guide.11 The Guide provides the scientif‌ic,12 economic,13
and sociologic14 rationale for a proposed Basin Plan that will be
released in late 2011.15
The Guide sets forth comprehensive and aggressive water
use policies with the goal of stabilizing and improving the
health of the MDB’s critical natural resources.16 To accomplish
this goal, the Guide proposes four key management policies:
sustainable diversion limits (“SDLs”), environmental quality
benchmarks, state-level SDL compliance, and an eff‌icient water
market.17 SDLs will limit the volume of water that may be taken
from a given river or aquifer;18 environmental benchmarks
will measure river salinity, overall water quality,19 and wetland
health;20 monitoring state-level SDL compliance will localize
enforcement of water resource allocation;21 and an eff‌icient
water market will allow farmers to buy and sell allocated water
resources to ensure a reliable revenue stream or increased water
Critics of the Guide argue that there was a lack of public
input during the planning process and that the proposed plan
will have a disproportionate impact on the communities most
dependent on the MDB’s water resources.23 Food processers,24
farmers,25 and irrigation organizations26 contest the MDBA’s
reliance on economic models that show that the proposed water
management changes will have minimal impacts on the overall
MDB economy.27 They argue that economic assessments should
have focused on short-term impacts to local and regional com-
munities instead of nation-wide impacts.28 Individual citizens,
meanwhile, suggest that the Guide’s proposals will lead to the
continued economic and cultural decay of MDB cities and towns
as residents relocate and abandon the MDB in search of eco-
nomic stability.29
However, the fundamental issue remains: Action is required
if Australia’s scarce water resources are to be preserved. The
MDB recently suffered the longest drought in recorded history
and faces a predicted eleven percent decline in surface water
availability by 2030.30 At the same time, water use in the MDB
has increased from 2,000 gigaliters annually in the early 1900s to
more than 10,000 gigaliters in 2010.31 The escalation of human
water use coupled with historic drought illustrates the need for
Basin-wide adaptation to diminished water resources if these
resources are to remain viable in the future.32
Decision-makers must implement policies that require
adaptation to declining water availability without compromising
the overall economic vitality of the region.33 Though irrigated
agriculture in the MDB is vital to Australia’s agricultural sec-
tor,34 it represents only seven percent of the MDB’s economy.35
Thus, while reports to the MDBA suggest that there will likely
be signif‌icant socio-economic impact on irrigation-dependent
farmers36 and communities,37 actions can be taken to transition
these communities to a more stable economic foundation.38 Eco-
nomic diversif‌ication of local communities39 through f‌lexible
labor and capital markets seems to be the most viable option.40
Delaying reform because of community disappointment and
apprehension presents a risk that the Australian government and
local communities cannot afford to take.41 Still, it is important
for the MDBA to consider community input in order to ensure
* Joshua Axelrod is a J.D. candidate, May 2014, at American University
Washington College of Law.
continued on page 51

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT