Established in 2012, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was intended to restore the environmental condition of the vital wetlands and rivers that make up southeast Australia’s most significant networks of waterways.

At the time, this laudable goal received broad public support, but five years later, flows have not improved, dredging is frequently needed to keep the mouth of the Murray River open, and there is little evidence of conservation benefit. Instead, about $4 billion has been paid to locals to subsidise irrigation infrastructure.

“In surveys, Australians expressed their desire to restore environmental health to an iconic river system,” said Associate Professor Darla Hatton MacDonald, an expert on resource and environmental economics at the Tasmanian School of Business and Economics.

Associate Professor Hatton MacDonald’s research focuses on an individual’s willingness to pay for the environment, and the kind of value that is attributed to various ecosystems and conservation initiatives, such as the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

The public expressed a strong willingness to pay for restoring environmental flows. However, we’ve spent $4 billion to reduce water losses from irrigation over the past decade with no clear indication that they have increased net stream flows.

This is why, in February 2018, Associate Professor Hatton MacDonald signed on to the Murray-Darling Basin Declaration with colleagues across Australia, to ask the Australian government to stop further spending on subsidies and grants to farmers for irrigation infrastructure.

As detailed in an article for The Conversation, Associate Professor Hatton MacDonald and her co-signatories argued that water savings from irrigation must be thoroughly audited, and an independent expert advisory body should be established to monitor the Basin’s health. 

“There is no time to waste for the Murray-Darling Basin, and its rivers, environments, traditional owners, and communities,” the scientists wrote. “The federal and state governments must be held to account and actually deliver what is needed for the basin, before the next big drought causes irreversible damage.”

An investigation by ABC’s 4 Corners in 2017 flagged major issues with water theft across the basin and a lack of compliance from irrigators on sustainable water use.

The general public were given the impression that their tax dollars would be spent on restoring important bird habitats, dwindling fish populations, and restoring the Coorong wetland system, as well as keeping the mouth of the Murray River open, but that is not how the money has been spent, said Associate Professor Hatton MacDonald.

The conservation outcomes have been questionable, and researchers are urging for accountability to be taken. 

Six billion dollars have been spent in total on water recovery, and the evidence isn’t there that it’s actually delivering. An independent audit is in order.

“I feel an obligation to set the story right.” 

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About Associate Professor Darla Hatton MacDonald

Associate Professor Darla Hatton MacDonald's research focuses on the application of economic principles in support of environmental objectives given society's preferences. Her major research projects have involved evaluating and developing market-based instruments (water trading, salinity credits, voluntary markets for carbon) and undertaking non-market valuation in water, biodiversity and climate change scenarios. She has provided timely peer-reviewed research to State and Commonwealth agencies in Australia providing support for public policy and decision-making. Over the last 20 years, she has written more than 100 journal articles, book chapters, conference papers and technical reports.

View Associate Professor Darla Hatton MacDonald's full researcher profile