Look after the Land and the Rivers: Reflections on Water Sharing

Kathleen Bowmer
CSIRO Land and Water / Charles Sturt University

Abstract: Water sharing in the Murrumbidgee catchment, New South Wales is described in the context of water reform policy in Australia. Key features of the plan, which was developed at a regional level, are rules for the use of environmental water and a hierarchy of rights for access to shares of the available water resource, with environmental water having priority. Conflicts arose because of uncertainty about compensation and trading, through lack of information about river condition and likely response to management intervention, through over-allocation of water, and because the statutory planning process did not take sufficient account of operational complexities in river management and non-flow options for environmental improvement. The Living Murray and National Water Initiatives are commitments to provide government investment, and better integration of natural resource management.

Keywords: Murrumbidgee, ecology, irrigation, planning, fairness, environmental water, river hydrology,


In 1994, in response to growing concerns about ecological sustainability, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) developed a national framework for water reform with the key objectives of pricing water to full cost recovery; separating water access rights from land; specifying ownership, reliability of access and transferability of water; allocating water to the environment; and engaging in public consultation. The progress achieved in environmental water allocation for a number of basins has recently been reviewed (Schofield et al. 2003.)

In 1995 the Murray Darling Basin Commission (MDBC) introduced a cap on the volume of water that could be diverted in the Basin based on the 1993/4 level of development. A key objective was to achieve healthy river systems and ensure sustainable consumptive use of water.

In 1997 the New South Wales government responded to COAG by establishing catchment-based committees to develop rules for allocating water for the environment.

Fig 1. Murrumbidgee Catchment

In 2000 the Prime Ministers National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality foreshadowed the allocation of 1.4 billion dollars for investment in 21 priority catchments, requiring the formation of catchment authorities and boards to engage in priority-setting and decision-making. Thus the governments of Australia were firmly on the track

to institutional reform and broadened community empowerment.


2.1 Features of the Murrumbidgee

Water sharing in the Murrumbidgee catchment (Fig 1) is particularly contentious because the river is highly regulated to provide water for irrigation which underpins regional wealth and employment. Agricultural production includes 25% of the State’s fruit and vegetable production, grapes (42%) and rice (50%). Water is also required to maintain the ecological function of the river and its floodplains, to support a Ramsar convention wetland and endangered fisheries, and to provide water downstream (NSW DLWC, 2003).

The health of the river was described by an independent expert panel as though variable, generally poor, and under the Fisheries Management Act 1994 the aquatic ecological community in the Lower Murray River catchment was declared endangered.

The issue is not simply one of more water for the environment but of ‘anti-drought’, with a reversal in the pattern of natural flow. The high summer and spring rainfall is captured in Burrinjuck and Blowering Reservoirs, two major storages in the headwaters. The river flows bank-full in summer to supply the needs of irrigation areas and districts several hundred kilometers downstream.

Other threats to the river include too little flow downstream of the irrigation off-takes, low water temperatures as a result of cold water release from deep storages, effects of weirs and barriers to fish passage, sand slugs, removal of snags, loss of riparian vegetation through grazing, and invasion of feral species especially carp.

Infrastructure includes 14 major dams, eight large weirs and more than 1000 km of irrigation channels. About 3800 irrigation licences access 2993 GL in entitlements including a conveyance allocation (Table1). The two main storages hold about 2650 GL, equivalent to 62% of the average annual flow at Wagga Wagga. Further information is available in the Draft Water Sharing Plan (MRMC 2002).

2.2 Water Sharing Plan

In September 1997 the Murrumbidgee River Management Committee (MRMC) was established to consider rules for the regulated part of the river and to prepare a river management plan. Later, under the New South Wales Water Management Act 2000, the Committee was directed to set rules for water sharing between the environment and other water users, and between water users with different types of licence.

The Committee’s membership was drawn from five state agencies, nature conservation organisations, local government and indigenous representatives. The Committee met 32 times over more than five years, developed a vision ‘the equitable sharing of limited water resources to sustain a healthy and productive river and the well-being of regional Murrumbidgee communities’, engaged in intensive debate, viewed a range of options and permutations for managing environmental water and engaged with stakeholders of widely different agendas through many workshops and meetings throughout the catchment.

Under the NSW Water Management Act 2000 environmental water has the highest priority followed by holders of basic landholder rights (riparian access for domestic consumption and stock watering without a licence) then by other users (Table1). Native title claims, still to be registered, are part of basic rights. The actual volume or share of consumptive water depends on the announced allocation, storage volumes and climatic conditions. Consequently any reduction in supply, such as through reduction of catchment run-off through afforestation or climate change, is reflected in a reduction of share to general security licence holders as they have the lowest priority of access. Note that supplementary water includes unallocated flow from tributary and dams spills and is potentially very important for the environment. Town water supply (local water utilities) can be varied every five years to reflect changes in population and associated commercial activities but water for new industry must be purchased.

Table1 Hierarchy of water rights priority









4 560


Domestic and stock

35 572


Local water utilities

23 403


High security

298 021


General security

2 043 042


*Supplementary water

220 000



373 000

*Available to holders of a supplementary water access licence and accessible when there are surplus flows in the river

The Murrumbidgee Water Sharing Plan (WSP) was gazetted in the New South Wales parliament on 27 December 2002 for implementation on 1 July 2003, with the expectation that the plan would be effective for ten years. However on 17 June 2003 the NSW Minister for Natural Resources deferred implementation until 1 January 2004 pending the discussions underway by the Council of Australian Governments on a National Water Reform Initiative. A further delay, until 1 July 2004, was announced on 28 October 2003.

2.3 Environmental Flow Rules

Environmental water is managed through a series of flow rules which include:(1) provision for a minimum low flow from the two major storages, (2) a dam translucency rule (3) an Environmental Water Allowance (AWA), and (4) water for ‘end-of-system’ flow.

The dam translucency rule is contentious and complex. Reflecting the initial instructions from the NSW Department of Land and Water Conservation (DLWC) and because of the desirability to develop a set of automatic procedures for environmental flow release, a set of translucency rules was developed in which the release from the storage was triggered according to prevailing run-off patterns. The objectives were: (1) to optimise the release of water in late winter to spring, avoiding ‘waste’ of environmental water through dam spilling and (2) to return some of the natural variability in the release pattern to scour sediment buildup and prevent algal blooms caused by low flow. However the benefits of this strategy were limited to the upper reaches of the river, below Burrinjuck storage and above the downstream tributary inflows.

The EWA is a volume of water that is set aside in storage and can be released at the discretion of the Regional Director of the NSW Department of Infrastructure Planning and Natural Resources (previously DLWC) with the advice of a reference group. Three releases were made: in September 1998, in August 2000 and in October 2001. The first release failed to raise river height sufficiently to inundate many wetlands especially in the lower reaches of the river. The second release was used to supplement (‘piggy-back’) onto a peak of unregulated tributary flow downstream of the storage and combined with weir pool manipulation to maintain peak height with travel downstream. Many of the lower and mid-level wetlands on the floodplain were successfully connected to the river, some for the first time for several years (Maguire et al. 2000).The last release was piggy-backed onto a surge peak provided for irrigation, with restriction on irrigation extraction during peak travel downstream, but achieved limited success.

The effectiveness of the EWA release strategy is limited by a low lying-bridge (‘the Gundagai choke’) which restricts within-bank flow to about 34 000 ML/day. Satellite imagery was used to describe the relationship between river flow and wetland inundation (Hardwick et al. 2001) demonstrating a steep increase in wetland connectivity as river flows exceeded the limitation of the choke. The feasibility of raising the bridge has been investigated, and funds for undertaking the works are now being sought.

Following the success of the year 2000 EWA releases the Committee agreed by majority to reconsider the balance of the environmental water uses and to increase the EWA account. The volume available was increased by 25GL to 50GL and additional water was transferred from the transparency and translucency water. Analysis of wetland inundation by piggy-backing, modelled retrospectively over 108 years of record shows an environmental benefit in numbers of extra events assuming a two day river peak at Wagga Wagga (Table 2). This data will support the EWA Reference Group to advise on targets and develop a set of automatic triggers for release of environmental water.

Table 2. IQQM modeling of EWA benefit. Flow at Wagga Wagga and events over 108 years.

Flow ML/day

No of events

Extra events

30 000



35 000



From the farmers’ perspective a critical aspect of environmental flow rules was the impact on spring-time early-season (August) water allocation and probability of increases during the summer. In the first two years of operation the Committee was faced with low levels of water in storage in spring when environmental flows needed to be released. Consequently a volume of water which increases with general security water allocation is now set aside as ‘provisional storage’. At least theoretically this increases the probability of dam spill in winter and spring and increases the level of storage at the start of the following year, effectively sharing environmental water in wetter times to reduce the highest year impact on irrigators and improve early season allocation levels. The annual impact of the WSP on general security water delivery at the farm gate compared with the cap 1993/4, and modelled over 108 years of records, is 4.2% on long-term average, 12.5% in the highest impact 25 years, 15.1% in the highest 10 years and 17.3% in the highest 3 years.

The end-of system flow rule ensures connection with the river Murray downstream and will provide a minimum of 40% of the pre-development 95 percentile monthly flow to be achieved within five years. There was a perception that environmental water could be accessed for consumptive use downstream of the Murray-Murrumbidgee junction and was not reserved for environmental purposes. Not surprisingly, some of the committee wanted to avoid commitment of precious environmental water to this end. The integration of the WSP with the needs of the Living Murray remains to be clarified. Neither does the WSP deal with ground water which was the province of a separate committee.

The MRMC, as well as developing a statutory water sharing plan has achieved several other tasks, and adapted to changes in political direction. Critically, the escalation and resolution of conflict were driving features of progress. Some of the critical points of tension, together with developments which may help with resolution are described below.


3.1 Water Access and Markets

Many irrigators perceived a gradual erosion of access to water and sometimes did not distinguish the effects of the cap, the environmental flow rules and the water sharing plan, all of which have contributed to reduction in volume of water available. They have heard that more water will be withdrawn for the Snowy and Murray Rivers and ask ‘where will it stop?’ They comment that even before the WSP is implemented the Murray Darling Basin Commission is starting another process, the Living Murray Initiative, which is likely to draw a large proportion of the requisite 1500GL of environmental flow from the Murrumbidgee. They are concerned about the cost (estimated at 1.2 billion dollars based on a conservative value of 800 dollars /ML) and ask ‘is this a serious proposal or will our water be taken away regardless? The need to have security for investment was a strong and consistent message during public consultation.

In subsequent developments the Wentworth Group, a think tank of eminent independent scientists and economists (WWF 2003; Young and McColl, 2003) have proposed the ‘robust separation’ of entitlement, allocation and use licence and a nationally consistent approach to trading - potentially a way out for farmers who are no longer profitable and who wish to cash in licences or consider retirement. The Council of Australian Governments recognises that investment in new, more efficient production systems is being hampered by uncertainty over long-term access to water and has agreed to develop a National Water Initiative (NWI) with investment of 500 million dollars over five years .

A reduction in run-off is foreshadowed as a result of catchment revegetation and forestry (Vertessy et al. 2003) and recent analysis suggests that rainfall variability is increasing in the Murrumbidgee (Khan et al. 2003a). These factors were not considered in the Water Sharing Plan but are foreshadowed in the National Water Initiative (NWI) which is explicit about assignment of risks and reductions in future water availability. Water access entitlement holders are expected to bear the risks associated with natural events, such as climate change and drought, whereas governments are to bear the risks for new policy such as increased environmental allocations. A framework will be established for coping with water interception through changes in land use. The NWI also promises firm pathways for returning over-allocated surface and groundwater to environmentally sustainable levels of extraction. In the Murrumbidgee this will be important in managing the previously unused ‘sleeper’ and seldom used ‘dozer’ licences which are likely to be to be taken up as the value of water increases.

Several issues need to be resolved. These include a dispute between the states on ownership of water in storages, the prospects of decline of regional communities below critical mass for service provision, the potential costs of stranding of infrastructure in irrigation areas, and whether the changes in use patterns brought about by trading of water can be managed to benefit the riverine environment. There is also the critical question of whether water markets will be seen as acceptable processes for allocating water in Australia in view of the contra-evidence that water is seen as a public good, and that involvement of local people in decision-making is a more significant determinant of the judgement of the fairness of the decisions than market forces (Syme et al. 1999).

The move to water trading and the recent drought have highlighted the measurement of water use efficiency in Australia ( eg Aquatech 2003), and approaches to valueing water. There is an increasing emphasis on the concept of virtual water (water required to produce a given product (CSIRO 2003)), and on total water accounting and inclusive wealth (which includes measures of human, manufacturing and natural capital (Harris et al. 2003)). These approaches give a broader perspective that, in future, may help to overcome public concerns that contribution of water-based industries to regional employment and social sustainability have been under-estimated.

3.2 Knowledge Gaps

The development of the WSP was hindered by deficiencies in knowledge in several critical areas of aquatic ecology and climatology.

The committee was briefed by experts on general principles of aquatic ecology, and reviewed the information available in the National Land and Water Resources Audit. However, more specific information on a river reach scale was required. Some was obtained through an expert panel (Agribusiness Task Force 2000), technical specialists (Buchan 2000) and the State-wide program on Integrated Monitoring of Environmental Flow. Other reports commissioned by the Committee included the status of fish populations and how they might be restored (Lugg, 2000), non-flow options for wetland management (Maguire 2000), and reviews of the operation and benefit of the Environmental Water Allowance (Maguire et al. 2000).

More help was needed to assess the relative benefits of increased instream flow as opposed to achieving more frequent river-floodplain connectivity. Also, although not explicitly included in the statutory WSP, judgments were required on the relative impact of multiple threats (aseasonal flow, temperature, drought, sand slugs, riparian vegetation decline and introduced species). This is necessary to avoid wasting environmental water if non-flow factors will prevent the achievement of potential benefits, as well as for priority setting for investment in non-flow restoration programs.

Options for developing environmental water rules were investigated by extensive modelling. The daily flow Integrated Quantity and Quality Model (IQQM) was not available initially and a monthly model was used to develop the initial set of environmental flow rules. Knowledge deficiencies included the desirable frequency of wetland drying and watering, and the river height and duration needed to achieve wetland connection.

Another general problem is that local knowledge is poorly integrated into official data. For example information on local fishing in relation to stocking rates would help maintain credibility during face to face public consultation. ‘We catch this fish. How can it be endangered?’ Also the inaccessibility of much of the grey literature leads to suspicions that ‘reports are not available because they don’t actually exist’. Though many agency staff provided outstanding commitment to the task it was generally difficult to access the wealth of information available from Universities, Co-operative Research Centres and CSIRO. Reasons include tension between the agencies and research providers and insufficient time and energy for committee members, many of whom were fully engaged in other employment.

Recent analysis (Khan et al. 2003a) suggests that water sharing strategies based on historical weather data may be flawed because of the climate shift since 1950, with increase in annual rainfall but greater variability. Streamflow also increased since 1950 with an increase at 50% cumulative probability for the Murrumbidgee from 3350 to 4700 GL per annum. The increased wetness of the later part of the last century may have misled policy makers resulting in an over-allocation of surface and groundwater in many parts of Australia.

3.3 Non-Flow Options

Some of the more effective options for better management of water for environmental benefit did not fit with the statutory planning process for water sharing. Several non-flow options for improving river condition are being explored. These include removing the choke at Gundagai, a pilot stewardship scheme for improving the condition of wetlands, most of which are on private land, and a consultancy to explore the feasibility of off-river storages, with the potential advantage of reduction of aseasonal high summer flow upstream of irrigation off-takes.

The rice industry continues to increase efficiency, in the last ten years having reduced water use by 30% while increasing yield by 60%. Rice growers have recently developed a broad –based environmental policy and implementation program, centred on an environmental champions program with tiered levels of accreditation (Linnegar and Woodside, 2003). Further increases in water use efficiency are imminent through development of improved varieties especially those tolerant of cold, precision agriculture for improved nitrogen fertiliser application, improved plant establishment, reduced periods of ponding and use of winter crops in rotation to used stored water in the profile and capture rainfall (Humphreys et al., 2003). An additional benefit of crop diversification is the spreading of water demand (Khan 2003b), with reduction on pressure on the high summer flows upstream of irrigation.

3.4 Flaws in Process

The tension between water users and environmental advocates was increased by confused institutional arrangements and changing goals and protocols for decision-making. In particular there was confusion about the role of community consultation versus ministerial decree.

Initially (September 1997) the Committee was provided with a set of principles on River Flow Objectives and Water Quality Objectives derived through previous public consultation by the NSW Environmental Protection Authority, together with a set of environmental flow rules which were to be accepted or amended by consensus within six months. A target impact was set on general security irrigators of 4-6% of average long term water diversions at the farm gate. In addition Murrumbidgee Irrigation identified approximately 100GL of water (including approximately 50GL from investment in improved irrigation technology on horticultural farms) that could be saved for the Snowy and Murray Rivers. Initial environmental flow rules were implemented in

March 1998.The Committee was also asked to develop a River Management Plan.

Later (July 1999) an unexpected combination of low storage and substantial downstream tributary flow caused substantial concern about the foreshadowed environmental release, and after much debate a compromise adjustment was agreed by majority. However, the two Ministers involved insisted on consensus resulting in further lengthy negotiations and an overly-complicated set of environmental flow rules. The outcome was approved by the Ministers (August 1999) and set in place for four years. But within 15 months the Water Sharing Planning Process was initiated, effectively re-opening the debate on the share of water for the environment. The Committee was asked to give priority to the Water Sharing Plan so that the River Management Plan, which provides the necessary audit and risk analysis, was put aside, and is still incomplete. Additionally the Committee was advised against considering the needs of the Lowbidgee wetlands. As a result the benefit of water for the environment was poorly articulated.

The draft plan was submitted in December 2001 then Minister’s comments were inserted to identify sections of the draft plan that did not meet government policy or to identify issues of concern. In the public consultation process a substantial majority of the 430 submissions received (August 2002) supported the Draft Water Sharing Plan developed by the Committee and rejected the Minister’s comments. Most of the community took these comments to be critical of the plan itself. Many people expressed concern about the inadequate socio-economic impact studies and the lack of scientific support for allocation of water to the environment.

After the submissions were received by the Committee and a few days before the meeting to consider the results of the public submissions and recommendations to the Ministers, the Chair of the Committee was briefed by the Regional Director and Deputy Director General of DLWC (now Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources) on options for increasing end-of-system flow. These options would have substantially increased the impact on irrigators in dry years, so the chair rejected the intervention on the grounds that further public consultation would be required to consider the changes. Nevertheless the plan was modified at the last moment by the strength of the DLWC Director General’s intervention and under threat that the plan would be jeopardised by the disagreement with the Minister for the Environment if the increase in end-of-system flow was not endorsed by the Committee. The increases to end-of-system flow were agreed by majority and the plan was gazetted on 27 December 2002.

In spite of many problems and conflicts a conclusion was reached which seems to be supported in principle by the Murrumbidgee community, so it is disappointing to find that the Water Sharing Plans are now suspended pending clarification of the National Water Initiative. For the many people engaged in the process so far it will be important that their work and opinions are seen to be taken into consideration.


4.1 The Living Murray Process

The development of the Living Murray and the National Water Initiatives are opportunities to develop the knowledge base in biophysical and socio-economic analysis that are necessary to underpin effective public consultation.

The interim report of the Scientific Reference Panel for the Living Murray has been published recently and reviewed independently (MDBC 2003; Davies and Acreman, 2003). It is recommended that an ecological modelling framework should be developed that can integrate information on salinity, water quality, exotic species and other factors to provide quantitative ecological outcomes from the combined effects of flow manipulation and other driving forces. It is also recommended that a groundwater component is developed. The Murrumbidgee community would probably argue that the ecological function of the tributary catchments and their icon features need to be considered along with the needs of the Murray River.

In April 2003, a community forum on the Living Murray of over 100 stakeholder from throughout the Murray Darling Basin agreed that (1) the process of engagement is as critical as the outcome (2) equity involves a balanced sharing of costs and benefits of change (3) accessible and credible information must underpin community decisions and policy decisions and (4) change must be underpinned by effective institutional arrangements and adequate resources. The dilemma is that a further round of public consultation will be expensive and time- consuming but the effects of delay are devastating for confidence and investment.

4.2 Integrated Land and Water Management

The Murrumbidgee Catchment Management Board is currently expected to integrate several separate committees responsible for vegetation, unregulated river, regulated river and groundwater planning but the relationships between these several committees has been unclear.

For example 150 000 tonnes of salt per year is currently diverted into the Murrumbidgee and Colleambally Irrigation Areas. Any reduction in water extraction will therefore increase downstream salt load. These considerations were not part of the Water Sharing Plan but clearly impact on salinity load targets set under the Prime Ministers National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality.

New Catchment Management Authorities will soon be established in New South Wales to develop property vegetation plans, streamline land use planning, infrastructure development and natural resource management and will subsume the river management committees in July 2004 (NSW DIPNR, 2003).

4.3 A Working River

It is pleasing to see that the concept of a working river appears to be achieving acceptability. Jones (2003) comments ‘It is the role of the science community to identify the relationship between level and type of work and the loss of river health. It is the role of river users to identify the levels and type of work that are economically and socially viable’. He warns that that while economic returns are immediate, the consequences of loss of river health and ecosystem services may take decades to impact on the community. Thompson and Hipkins (2003), for example, provide strategies to show that healthy river systems and a buoyant irrigation industry are complementary objectives for maximising community welfare providing that all stakeholders work co-operatively.

Justice and fairness are critical to build relationships and find options and solutions that we can live with into the future. It has been said that the state of our rivers is the scorecard for the state of our civilisation. The Wiradjuri people, the indigenous custodians of the Murrumbidgee and its region practice a simple and effective philosophy ‘Look after the land and the rivers and the land and the rivers will look after you!’


This paper is a revised, updated version of that previously presented at the Fenner Conference (Bowmer 2003). The author was the independent chair of the Murrumbidgee River Management Committee from September 1997 until February 2003 but the views presented here are her own. Mr. Mark Foreman and NSW DIPNR staff are thanked for data, hydrological modelling and review.


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