Are the days of fighting over Murray water finished?

Thursday, 16 October 2014

A University of Adelaide water and constitutional law expert says the next Australian drought will be the first time the new Murray-Darling Basin Plan will be truly tested, revealing if the Basin Plan has what it takes to manage River Murray water allocation disputes which have been ongoing for more than a century.

Speaking in the lead up to National Water Week (19-25 October 2014), Dr Adam Webster from the University of Adelaide's Law School says historically, tensions surrounding water allocation come to surface during times of extreme drought.

"The Basin Plan, introduced in 2012, is a framework that aims to achieve a balance between environmental, economic and social considerations associated with the Murray-Darling Basin. It also includes guidelines surrounding water allocation for the individual states (namely SA, NSW and Vic)," Dr Webster says.

"While we don't know exactly when the next drought will impact the region, history tells us there will be more and that's when we'll really know the effectiveness of the Basin Plan," he says. "And that's when Governments will really focus on water regulation."

Dr Webster says the new Basin Plan is part of one of a number of intergovernmental agreements that have been implemented over the past century in an effort to manage ongoing water allocation disputes between the States through which the waters of the Basin flow.

"2014 marks 100 years since the first formal agreement on River Murray water allocation between the States and the Commonwealth. Since this time, subsequent agreements have never been easy to reach, causing tension between the States."

"As a result, there have been occasions when a State - most commonly SA, and usually during times of drought - has considered its legal position and the possibility of litigation, which has only added to the tensions associated with creating inter-state agreements."

While the Australian States have argued over the waters of the River Murray for more than 100 years, Dr Webster says historically disputes have been resolved without the involvement of the courts.

"When compared to the United States, Australia manages disputes about water allocation quite admirably.

"To date disputes have been negotiated out of court, which is a faster and less expensive manner in which to address them. In the US on the other hand, States have gone to court on numerous occasions in an effort to resolve issues about river water allocation. That litigation has been both lengthy and expensive," he says.


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Dr Adam Webster
Adelaide Law School
The University of Adelaide
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