The role of stakeholders in Murray-Darling Basin water management: How do irrigators make water use decisions and how can this influence water policy?

Friday, 19 December 2014
Ellen Marie Douglas1, Sarah A Wheeler2, David J. Smith3, Steven Gray4, Ian C Overton5, Neville D Crossman6 and Tanya Doody5, (1)University of Massachusetts Boston, School for the Environment, Boston, MA, United States, (2)University of South Australia, School of Commerce, Adelaide, Australia, (3)CSIRO, Land and Water, Griffith, Australia, (4)University of Massachusetts Boston, School of The Enviornment, Boston,, MA, United States, (5)CSIRO Land and Water Flagship, Adelaide, Australia, (6)CSIRO, Ecosystem Services, Adelaide, Australia
Water stress and overallocation are at the forefront of water management and policy challenges in Australia, especially in the Murray Darling Basin (MDB). Farmland within the MDB generates 40 percent of Australia’s total agricultural production and utilizes 60 percent of all irrigation water withdrawn nationally. The Murray Darling Basin Plan, drafted in 2008 and enacted in November 2012, has at its core the establishment of environmentally sustainable diversion limits based on a threshold of water extraction which, if exceeded, would cause harm to key environmental assets in the MDB. The overall goal of the Plan is to balance economic, social and environmental outcomes within the Basin.

Because irrigated agriculture is the major water user in the MDB, it is important to understand the factors that influence irrigation water use. We applied a mental modeling approach to assessing farmer water use decisions. The approach allowed us to solicit and document farmer insights into the multifaceted nature of irrigation water use decisions in the MDB. Following are a few insights gained from the workshops: 1) For both environmental and economic reasons, irrigators in the MDB have become experts in water use and water efficiency. Water managers and government officials could benefit by partnering with farmers and incorporating this expertise into water management decisions. 2) Irrigators in the MDB may have been misperceived when it comes to accepting policy change. Many, if not most, of the farmers we talked to understood the need for, or at least the inevitability of, governmental policies and regulations. But a lack of accountability and predictability has added to the uncertainty in farming decisions. 3) Irrigators in the MDB subscribe to the concept of environmental sustainability, although they might not always agree with how the concept is implemented. Farmers should be recognized for their significant investments in the long-term sustainability of their farms and their communities and appreciated for their role in the sustainability of the Basin. The mental modelling approach used in this research could be used to educate all stakeholders in differences in perspectives and common goals and bridge the gap into how to implement sustainable management practices.