The Murray Darling. Who’s taking more than their fair share?

The Murray Darling Basin is one of Australia’s most important ecological systems and supplies one third of our nation’s food bowl. Since July 2017 there have been increasing concerns that the Murray Darling Basin is at risk. South Australia has proposed a Royal Commission to investigate all aspects and threats to the health of the river. 


South Australia capped its water use from the River Murray in 1969.

Over the decades, upstream states continued to take more water from the system, reducing flows and leading to adverse environmental impacts further down the river.

South Australia campaigned strongly for a basin-wide plan which mandated sustainable water usage. The Murray Darling Basin Agreement was signed in 2012.  It ensures the whole system gets the water it needs to be healthy, for the benefit of the 3.4 million people who rely on it for their drinking water and their livelihoods.

The agreement returns 3200 GL of water or equivalent flow to the Murray Darling Basin system, including an additional 450 GL negotiated by South Australia. This water is necessary to keep the Murray mouth open, reduce salinity in the Coorong and Lower Lakes, increase flows to the Coorong and allow for an increase in floodplain watering across NSW, Victoria and South Australia.

This year, there have been several reports of wrongdoing by upstream states.

In July, Four Corners revealed allegations regarding the theft of water of New South Wales cotton growers and raised questions about the conduct of senior officials accountable for water management in NSW.

Then Federal Water Minister Barnaby Joyce was recorded telling locals at a Shepparton pub reports about water theft were “about them trying to take more water off you” and that the Nationals had reclaimed the federal water portfolio to “stop greenies running the show”.

In August, Lateline aired a number of allegations of irrigators within Queensland creating illegal structures to trap water, and deny flows into the Murray Darling Basin.

The Daily Telegraph reported claims National Party donors had been given special treatment by a National Party Minister.

The Guardian reported farmers and water experts believe New South Wales government rule changes could be causing more water loss to the Murray-Darling river system than before the Basin Plan was put in place.

Last month, Lateline revealed police had raided a large cotton farm on the New South Wales-Queensland border as part of a criminal probe into possible fraudulent use of Murray Darling Basin funds.

Last week, the NSW Ombudsman released a scathing report into water monitoring and compliance activities in NSW, revealing that three previous reports provided to the NSW Government had been buried.

Premier Jay Weatherill states “We now have widespread claims of water theft by upstream states. This scandal is so extensive, we need a rigorous, independent inquiry with the coercive powers of a Royal Commission.

South Australians fought too hard to secure the Murray Darling Basin Agreement to see our water stolen by greedy upstream irrigators. It’s clear some irrigators in upstream states have no regard for people who live and work downstream.

The River Murray scandal is an absolute disgrace. I will always stand up for South Australia and our right to secure our water.”

Minister for Water Ian Hunter states “We are now at a critical stage of the implementation of the Murray Darling Basin Agreement.

The problem isn’t the plan, the problem is a lack of political will and a lack of political leadership to enforce it. For the plan to work, we must ensure South Australia is getting the water flows provided by the plan.

Some upstream irrigators appear to be flouting the agreement to the detriment of our irrigators who have always played by the rules.”

Various independent investigations have now been held into water compliance, with findings that upstream states and the Federal Government are ignoring widespread allegations of water theft and corruption, and are failing to enforce the Plan.

The South Australian Government called for the Federal Government to hold a national Royal Commission into these allegations, and for the establishment of a national body to oversee water compliance. After the Federal Government refused to hold a Royal Commission, the Premier of South Australia announced a State Royal Commission will begin in early 2018. 

Get involved

We're interested in hearing your views: 

  1. On the allegations, future of the Murray and the Basin Plan
  2. Have your say on the proposed Terms of Reference for the Murray Darling Basin Royal Commission (217 KB)
  3. Share your thoughts on the proposed Royal Commissioner (56 KB)

You can get involved by:

This consultation is open from 9.00am 16 December to 11.59pm 5 January 2018.

All responses will be considered in the development of the final Terms of Reference and determination of the Royal Commissioner.

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