Like the Millennium Drought, the current drought in the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) has focused the attentions of water users, politicians, policy makers, mainstream media and a concerned general public. In a Special Climate Statement issued in April this year, the Bureau of Meteorology observed that storage levels in the northern MDB are lower than at any point during the Millennium Drought, and southern MDB storage levels may also decline to Millennium Drought levels. Over the course of Australia’s hottest summer on record (2018-19), three significant fish death events on the lower Darling became a focal point for public distress and shone a light on water management decisions (historic and more recent) made by state and federal governments. Water management in the MDB has been consistently in the headlines since, including as a highly contested political issue in the lead-up to the recent federal election.

As the Chair of the independent panel tasked by Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, The Hon. David Littleproud MP, to assess the 2018-19 fish deaths in the lower Darling, Aither Senior Associate Prof Rob Vertessy describes receiving the call-up as a ‘rare opportunity’, saying ‘it’s not often that you are called upon to help government navigate through a crisis’. Prof Vertessy’s panel handed down their final report on 29 March 2019. The report includes ten recommendations for MDB policy makers and 17 for MDB managers, to be implemented within the next one, two or three years.

According to Prof Vertessy, ‘the most important thing we’ve said is that it is necessary to maintain hydrologic connectivity in the system. You can’t have the river continuing to reduce to a set of stagnant pools and expect the fish in the system to remain alive’. He describes four main ways that this can be achieved: (1) modify water access arrangements in the Barwon-Darling water sharing plan to protect low flows and first flushes, (2) modify the operating procedures for the Menindee Lakes storage, (3) introduce protections for the passage of environmental water through the system, and (4) reduce water demand by making strategic water purchases of water entitlements in the lower Darling. Prof Vertessy notes that the Australian Government has since made a commitment to buy high reliability water entitlements to reduce stress on the river during low flow sequences.

The report finds that the main immediate cases of the fish death events were low flows, poor water quality, and sudden changes in temperature, and identifies the main contributing factors as climatic conditions, water management and barriers to fish movement. The panel noted that ‘It was impossible to consult with stakeholders on the fish death events without the conversation turning to the broader issue of Basin water reform’.

For Prof Vertessy, hearing first-hand about these broader issues and the impacts felt at the local level was ‘very moving’. Many local people, he says, ‘felt pretty much abandoned by government’. He identifies his experiences hearing from the Traditional Owners, the Barkandji, as ‘the hardest thing of all’, saying they were ‘very clearly grieving for the loss of their river’. Prof Vertessy will return to Menindee on 29 May to present and discuss the panel’s findings with local stakeholders.

As a senior leader in the Australian Government through the years of the Millennium Drought, Prof Vertessy has seen the debate around water management in the MDB take many twists and turns. ‘As is often the case when things go pear-shaped’, he says, ‘the debate goes pear-shaped as well – there’s a lot of nonsensical populist rhetoric out there’. For Prof Vertessy, ‘the important thing is to grasp the opportunity presented by crisis to progress reforms, whilst giving due recognition to the many nuances that are involved in these problems’.

One of the things that current drought conditions tell us, says Prof Vertessy, is that ‘climate change has already impacted the Basin and that more change lies ahead’. ‘Of particular concern’ he notes, ‘is the shifts in hydrologic extremes like droughts and floods. It is unlikely that the current water management arrangements will get us through the more serious drought sequences we face in the future, so over the next few years we need to envision ways to improve water security in the northern basin.’

Part of the solution, ‘between now and when the Basin Plan review is done in 2026’, according to Prof Vertessy, will be to ‘do some real serious stress-testing of the system for acute drought sequences, such as the one we’re in and ones that are worse than this’. He argues that sustained cease-to-flow periods will lead to further ecologic shocks: ‘If you don’t have water flushing through the system regularly, you’re going to have these kinds of very serious fish kills and they’re going to reduce the benefits accruing from environmental water recovery.’ Prof Vertessy noted that ‘two high flow events in 2012 and 2016, supported by environmental watering, had filled the Menindee Lakes, giving rise to significant fish breeding in the area. The rapid onset of acute drought after that resulted in the worst possible combination of a boom period followed by a bust period’.

With the independent panel’s assessment now completed, Prof Vertessy is turning his attention to advocating for improved arrangements for water R&D in Australia. He views ongoing, higher levels of government R&D funding as critical to improved decision making by government and a more sensible debate around water management in the MDB: ‘A healthy water R&D ecosystem spawns enhanced public outreach, improved water literacy in government and the community, and more trusted voices that can comment sensibly on water affairs’. He notes this is a focus of his role as Water Forum chair at the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering: ‘Over the coming months our Academy will be collaborating with the Academy of Science to produce a vision statement for water R&D in Australia. Both of our academies have identified the criticality of bringing our best science and technology to Australia’s water security challenge’.

Professor Rob Vertessy has led a distinguished career in water research, serving as Chief Executive of the Cooperative Research Centre for Catchment Hydrology (2002-2004) and then Chief of CSIRO’s Land and Water Division (2004-2007). In 2006, Rob was seconded to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to design a national water information strategy. He then joined the Bureau of Meteorology (in 2007) to oversee its implementation as a new Bureau service. Rob served as CEO of the Bureau (2011-2016) and is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (FTSE). After retiring from the Australian Public Service in 2016, Rob took up a part-time role at the University of Melbourne as an Enterprise Professor in Water Resources. Rob heads Global Change Advisory, a consulting company focused on environmental intelligence.

Huw Pohlner is a Principal at Aither, based in Melbourne. Huw leads Aither’s Water Policy and Management team and manages several significant projects and clients domestically and internationally.