Experts have reflected on the latest 5-year evaluation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan (MDBP).

Every 5 years the Murray–Darling Basin Authority is meant to take stock of the Basin Plan and how it is being implemented, outlining key findings and recommendations for the 2020 Basin Plan Evaluation.

The MDBP was designed to rebalance the scales and bring water use back to more sustainable levels in the Murray-Darling Basin. Eight years on, after droughts, fish deaths and disputes, many wonder if  the Plan is working.

The 2020 review “promises much but ignores an elephant in each of two corners of the emergency room”, according to Professor Quentin Grafton from Australian National University.

One of the findings of the report is that “water enables First Nations to continue customary and spiritual traditions”.

“Much has been promised to First Nations in terms of water, but they are still waiting,” Prof Grafton says.

“In the NSW part of the Basin, First Nations own just 0.2 per cent of the surface water entitlements, a proportion that has declined by about one fifth since 2009.”

Another of the report’s findings is that “there is evidence to suggest that much of the past funding to support communities to adapt to water reform could have been better targeted”.

“Good to know the MDBA has finally recognised what has been well documented in academic literature for at least a decade, and also in parliamentary and senate inquires, as well as the South Australia Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission,” Prof Grafton says.

“Sadly, the late recognition will not stop billions of dollars committed to Basin water infrastructure – spending that will not help communities in desperate need of water security, such as Wilcannia, on the lower Darling.

“We should expect much more from the Basin Plan Evaluation and we should expect more from the Basin Plan that has, so far, failed to deliver on key objects of the Water Act, as was promised.”

Professor Richard Kingsford - a member for the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and Director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science at the University of New South Wales Sydney - says that while some positive outcomes have been measured, many critical environmental indicators remain poor.

“The evidence suggests that we need to redouble our efforts to ensure the expected water is in the river, particularly in light of our recent assessment that showed observed river flows were 20 per cent less than expected under the basin plan,” Prof Kingsford says.

“We welcome the report's strong emphasis on the need to address climate change, and acknowledgement that the Basin Plan won’t be enough.

“Much of the heavy lifting still remains to be done - on water recovery, water resource planning, relaxing constraints and floodplain harvesting - and we need a quantum shift in our efforts if we are to restore a healthy Basin in a changing climate.”