Healthy Rivers

Water is life.

As the driest state in the driest inhabited continent on earth, we know how precious our rivers, wetlands and other waterways are.

But Australia’s largest and most important river system – the Murray-Darling – is on the brink of collapse, and we need your help to restore it to health. 

From the Murray Mouth to the heart of the Darling, Conservation SA is committed to fighting for our rivers. 

We've supported our member groups all along the Murray and Coorong, co-founded the Healthy Rivers Ambassadors program, fought for the Murray-Darling and influenced through submissions and media appearances.

Conservation SA is a proud member of the Lifeblood Alliance and the Murray Darling Conservation Alliance

A healthy Murray-Darling Basin 

The Murray-Darling Basin is a mighty system of rivers, lakes and wetlands, covering a large part of south-eastern Australia. It’s home to globally important wetlands, majestic river red gum forests and nearly 100 different species of waterbirds.

People depend on the health of the river system too. More than two million people live in the Basin, including 40 different First Nations, and they rely on this river water for drinking, farming, fishing and swimming.

But after years of mismanagement, the Murray-Darling Basin is on the brink of ecological collapse. In the last decade we’ve seen dry riverbeds, toxic algae blooms and massive fish kills.

The river system is complex, but the core problem is simple – people have been taking too much water from the river, which doesn’t leave enough to sustain the wildlife and wetlands that also need a decent drink.


  1. The vision behind the Murray-Darling Basin Plan

  2. How the Plan has been bastardised

  3. The impact of climate change

  4. Four ways to revive our rivers

The vision 

The Murray Darling Basin Plan was supposed to fix this. Back in 2007, Prime Minister John Howard’s vision was for “radical and permanent change” to the way our biggest river system was managed.  

Howard said the Basin Plan would address over-allocation of water “once and for all”. It would reduce how much water could be taken from the river, leaving enough for the wetlands, forests, birds, fish and frogs to survive. 

Bastardising the Basin Plan 

But having a plan is one thing, and following through on it is another. Right from the start, a handful of powerful corporate interests and their cashed-up lobbyists have lobbied governments to undermine the Plan and rig the rules in their favour. 

With every political sell-out and backroom deal, the vision behind the Basin Plan has been bastardised:

In the news: The Basin Plan has been compromised at every turn.

  • The total amount of water to be returned to rivers is far below what the science recommends. [1
  • Recovering that water for the environment has been constantly delayed. [2]
  • The cheapest and most effective method of recovering water for the environment – buying it back – has been ruled out in favour of dubious ‘efficiency’ projects. [3] 
  • Governments have turned a blind eye to blatant water theft. [4]  
  • Some landowners have built earthworks to capture floodwaters in huge private dams, instead of letting it flow naturally down the river. NSW is now attempting to make this unfair practise legal. [5] 
  • Private property is blocking natural floods from reaching the wetlands that need them. Only 21 percent of water for the environment floods over the bank to keep the floodplain healthy. [6] 

The list goes on, each political deal undermining the whole point – to reduce how much water is taken from the river. 

After years of this, we’re in a situation that benefits a chosen few. Water is going to the people with the most money or the best connections, leaving the community and environment to suffer.

Climate and future choices 

On top of all this, there’s climate change. A hotter, drier climate means less water is flowing into the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin.   

As a result, competition for water is only going to get worse. If a handful of rogue irrigators lobby to continue taking more than their fair share, but the overall amount of water in the river system decreases, that leaves even less for the environment. 

If we do nothing, regional communities could face a frightening future. A few large players would own most of the water,  leaving everyone else with sick rivers and too little water to go around. 

But if we act now we can secure a better future for the Basin. A future with thriving regional communities that have diverse industries providing good jobs. A future where rivers and wetlands are brimming with life, and First Nations have the right to protect, manage and own water on their traditional Country. 

We can revive our rivers and communities, and it starts with going back to first principles – reducing the unsustainable amount of water taken from our rivers. 

Four ways to revive our rivers

A healthy river benefits everyone. If we take care of the river, the river takes care of us. 

While the Murray-Darling Basin Plan has been compromised from the beginning, it’s still the best framework we’ve got. That’s why it’s in everyone’s interests to see a much better version of the Basin Plan succeed.  

The Basin Plan will be reviewed in 2024, and we’re calling on governments to listen to the science and deliver the Plan as it was intended. No more excuses. No more backroom deals or special treatment. And no more delay. 

We can do that in four key ways:  

1. Restore natural flows

River ecosystems cannot simply be re-engineered to survive on less water. It is critical that the Federal government shifts focus, pushing the states to remove the physical and regulatory constraints that prevent environmental flows from reaching key wetlands. This is essential for delivering ecological outcomes and nearly 10 times cheaper than scientifically dubious wetland engineering proposals. 

2. Invest in regional communities

Ensuring survival of the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin is the fundamental purpose of the Water ActThe Basin Plan needs to achieve this goal otherwise we are back to square one. But the Basin Plan was never going to be enough on its ownIt needs to be paired with additional investment in regional communities through policies that are designed and led by locals. The government’s own socio-economic reporting indicates that river recovery and supporting jobs and incomes in the Basin are more efficiently and equitably addressed through separate, complementary policies. 

3. Buy back water

The 2019 targets for water recovery have not yet been met, and the Basin Plan is not on track to recover the full 3200 gigalitres for the environment. There is no evidence that the Federal government’s current approach of using off-farm efficiency projects can deliver more than 15% of this already inadequate target. Buying water back from willing sellers is the most efficient and cost-effective option available.

4. Deliver funding for First Nations

The entire Murray-Darling is First Nations Country and First Nations people make up 5% of the Basin population. Yet they own just 0.2% of the water. The more than 40 First Nations of the basin demand the right to protect, manage and own water resources in order to heal Country and people. After decades of water reform the time for token gestures has long past. Governments must sit down and negotiate real water justice with each First Nation.

Content credit Murray-Darling Conservation Alliance/Environment Victoria


Support us and get involved

Contact Conservation SA on (08) 8223 5155, [email protected], or at our offices at the Joinery at 111 Franklin Street, Adelaide.

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