Jonathan La Nauze
Manager, Healthy Ecosystems Program
Australian Conservation Foundation or 0402 904 251

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan just might set our nation’s hardest working river on a sustainable course. Or it could join the list of great Australian reforms that fell over in their implementation. How should we tackle the implementation challenge and can we find consensus and allow success to bloom from it; turning ‘the Plan’ into real, measureable, improved environmental outcomes that benefit all Basin stakeholders?

Surely it’s incumbent on all of us as residents of this magnificent wide land to shoulder the responsibility and grapple with these challenges in good faith. After all, it’s our grandchildren who will grow up in the future we are creating now. Don’t we want it to be a future of plentiful fish, clean water and productive farms?

With that spirit ACF looks forward to the next decade of Plan implementation:

  • Rolling-out and consolidating the projects and programs embedded in the Plan and broader Basin reforms;
  • Delivering environmental flows with real community involvement, learning from experience and increasing confidence that ecological asset condition will improve on local to Basin-wide scales; and
  • thinking collectively about how to optimise policy and institutional settings in the future – avoiding future decision-making during crises like drought or dramatic ecological decline.

‘Constraints management’ issues span all the above objectives and are therefore of high importance in realising the best outcomes for the Basin. We don’t pretend it is easy, nor presume we will always know the cost of change to farmers and other businesses entwined in the water business. But ACF stands willing to listen, to explore the options and identify common ground. And we know the cost of failing to do so.

Let me say one thing first, however. I really don’t like the term ‘constraints management.’ It’s negative and technocratic. For those who fear the Plan will flood them out of house, home and crop, it sounds as though their very way of life has been relegated to a mere ‘constraint’ to be managed. Indeed, more than one populist fear monger has sought to exploit this unintended meaning. But more importantly, I dislike it for it fails to suggest the scale of the opportunity.

We are talking about reconnecting rivers with their floodplains, the estuary with the mountains, restoring life-giving passageways for fish, bugs and everything in between to get out into the world and breed. Indeed we’re talking about reconnecting communities with their very life support systems. It’s exciting!

Constraints Management is about turning a concept – the environment’s legal entitlement to water – into real flows down flood runners, across floodplains, into once-stranded billabongs. It is the hold-in-the-hand environmental outcomes like new generations of fish and waterbirds, and ecosystem services with real economic value like populations of crop-pollinating insects.

And it is the opportunity to make environmental flows work as efficiently as possible, which is essential, because the environment is on a tight budget and it is in everyone’s interest that it spends wisely. The more efficiently the environmental water portfolio delivers environmental outcomes, the less imperative there will be to grow it in the future.

ACF firmly believes that the most challenging constraint of all, and the one that unlocks the key to everything else, is the will of us all to engage in open-ended discussions about issues as sacrosanct as entitlement characteristics or environmental water trade; but it’s only by doing so that we can sniff out the win-wins that increase not just the efficiency of environmental water use, but the benefits to be had by all water users.

To that end, ACF has engaged Aither consulting to assist us identify, assess and prioritise initiatives and reforms to get the most from the environment’s budget as we embark on the implementation journey. A position paper will be released in May.

To register your interest in receiving the position paper, please email