Photograph:The Australian

Keelty Report misses the mark


The Interim-Inspector General (IIG) Mick Keelty’s report on watering sharing fell short of what the former Water Minister David Littleproud commissioned. ‘The Inquiry into the Management of Murray–Darling Basin Water Resources’ now appears to be little more than a political agreement to quash issues raised by our irrigation industries and Basin communities. The RGA finds a large gap between the Terms of Reference and what was delivered.While the inquiry saw that ‘stakeholders had wide-ranging and often significant concerns’, the RGA doesn’t believe that the report provided legitimate or adequate responses to those concerns. It has missed an important opportunity to take an in-depth look at current water sharing arrangements and allocation policies in the Murray-Darling Basin.


The RGA Policy Team compared the Terms of Reference (ToR) with the actual report.  The following is a brief summary.


The Terms of Reference(ToR)

  1. The impact of changing distributions of inflows to the southern Basin on state shares under the Murray–Darling Basin Agreement; and
  2. Any consequential impacts on state water shares resulting from the reserves required under the Murray–Darling Basin Agreement. This includes how these interact with state water allocation policies.

General Comment:

The final report inadequately represents what it was commissioned to achieve.  It appears to be little more than a political peace keeping report, rather than the fearless evaluation delivering outcomes as promised to irrigation industries and Basin communities. The report basically recommends all that’s needed is better communication, so Basin communities and industries can understand and accept the status quo. This assumes the status quo is acceptable. It is not. Any reform on the scale of the Basin Plan inevitably has unintended, perverse and unforeseen outcomes The Keelty inquiry was supposed to take an in-depth look at these consistent with its terms of reference, but instead only mentioned a few in passing.

ToR #1

  • The report acknowledges that the reduced inflows into Menindee may be due to a range of natural and policy decisions, including record low inflows in northern NSW, lower rainfall, higher temperatures, catchment modification (including farm dams), increasing development, floodplain harvesting, changes in extraction rules in water-sharing plans, and non-compliance. The report says the relative influence of each of these factors is highly complex and has not been established.

The RGA has advocated for and supports Recommendation 1: The MDBA should undertake further analysis of the causes of reduced inflows from the northern Basin and the extent to which this is affecting State water shares.

ToR #2

Issues requiring investigation but only mentioned in passing:

  • Acknowledgement that the water sharing arrangements decided in 1970 under the Murray Darling Basin Agreement may no longer be relevant under a warming climate of the past 20 years.
  • Acknowledgement of the legitimate concerns amongst stakeholders about whether too much water is being lost in the operation of the River Murray system.
    The report describes the arrangements to hold operators accountable, but these are not transparent, and internal review reports (even ‘independent’ audit reports) are not publicly available. Importantly, Keelty says further work to investigate the impact of pressures such as expanding horticultural development downstream must be delivered quickly to give greater confidence for the future.
  • The report says the MDBA provided information on water sharing arrangements.  This information had not been independently audited or validated. Further, information on allocations of available water to the States is not readily or publicly available. To date we have been asked to trust the States and MDBA have got this right through internal review and self-auditing processes.
  • The report says "There is a sense that improved measurement would lead to improvements in water availability … Measuring volumes of water at a Basin or valley scale, relies on computer models that use climatic data and data taken from river gauges (MDBA 2020, pers. comm. 11 February) … Different standards for measurement and accounting are applied at different scales of water use or management according to the accuracy of measurement that is technically possible.’ The scope for compounding margins of error across the different measurement standards and systems is a material issue for calculating losses and therefore water availability. The report instead accepts the status quo, as if it cannot be improved.