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The evolution and performance of river basin management in the Murray-Darling Basin

Andrew Ross, Australian National University
Daniel Connell, Australian National University


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We explore bioregional management in the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) in Australia through the institutional design characteristics of the MDB River Basin Organization (RBO), the actors and organizations who supported and resisted the establishment of the RBO, and the effectiveness of the RBO. During the last 25 years, there has been a major structural reform in the MDB RBO, which has changed from an interstate coordinating body to an Australian government agency. Responsibility for basin management has been centralized under the leadership of the Australian government, and a comprehensive integrated Basin plan has been adopted. The driving forces for this centralization include national policy to restore river basins to sustainable levels of extraction, state government difficulties in reversing overallocation of water entitlements, the millennium drought and its effects, political expediency on the part of the Australian government and state governments, and a major injection of Australian government funding. The increasing hierarchy and centralization of the MDB RBO does not follow a general trend toward multilevel participative governance of RBOs, but decentralization should not be overstated because of the special circumstances at the time of the centralization and the continuing existence of some decentralized elements, such as catchment water plans, land use planning, and water quality. Further swings in the centralization–decentralization pendulum could occur. The MDB reform has succeeded in rebalancing Basin water allocations, including an allocation for the environment and reduced diversion limits. There are some longer term risks to the implementation of reform, including lack of cooperation by state governments, vertical coordination difficulties, and perceived reductions in the accountability and legitimacy of reform at the local level. If implementation of the Basin plan is diverted or delayed, a new institution, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, can play a major role in securing and coordinating environmental water supplies.

Key words

centralization; coordination; environment; management; river basin organization; stakeholders

Copyright © 2016 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087