Finding national solutions

Water Act 2007 and amendments

...the crisis facing the Murray-Darling Basin ... not only reflects environmental failures but also represents a failure of Federation. For more than a century state governments have put parochial interests above the national interest and allowed this once great river system to be drained to death's door.

Senator Nick Xenophon, Speech to the Senate, 27 August 2008

The Water Act has been described as the most extensive Commonwealth intervention into water resource management in Australia since Federation. In 2008 basin States referred constitutional powers to the Commonwealth to enable it to manage the basin water resources in the national interest. The management of the Murray–Darling Basin is a complex problem that will require further consultation and adjustment in the decades to come.

Sections 98 and 100 of the Constitution of Australia

Since 1901 Commonwealth powers over the River Murray have been limited by the Constitution.

While the States have primary responsibility for rivers, the Constitution allows the Commonwealth Parliament to make laws in areas referred to it by the States.

98. Trade and commerce includes navigation and State railways

The power of the Parliament to make laws with respect to trade and commerce extends to navigation and shipping...

100. Nor abridge right to use water

The Commonwealth shall not, by any law or regulation of trade or commerce, abridge the right of a State or of the residents therein to the reasonable use of the waters of rivers for conservation or irrigation.

Wheat field

Since the 1980s, water quality and environmental issues became a focus of the Murray–Darling agreements. The need to find a balance between servicing the water needs of rural and urban communities and ensuring the health of the river and groundwater systems was increasingly seen as a national issue.

Images courtesy of Murray–Darling Basin Authority. Photography by Arthur Mostead, Michael Bell and Irene Dowdy.