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An introduction to Water

An introduction to the Murray-Darling Basin

Learn the basics about the Murray-Darling Basin, why it's important and how it is managed.

Aerial view of the Murray River with trees along the bank snaking it's way around a town on the background

Learn about series

A series of information pages on the basics of water.
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What is the Murray-Darling Basin?

The Murray-Darling Basin is an interconnected system of rivers and lakes. It spans a large area of south-eastern Australia and has two main rivers, the River Murray and the Darling River, and many smaller rivers, streams and creeks which feed into them.

The Darling River begins in southern Queensland, where the Culgoa and Barwon rivers meet. It then flows into the River Murray at the border between New South Wales and Victoria. The River Murray begins on the western side of the Australian Alps, and eventually reaches the ocean in South Australia.

Why is the Murray-Darling Basin important?

The Murray-Darling Basin is Australia's largest river system. People, animals and the environment depend on its water to survive.

Around 2.3 million people live in the Basin, including many First Nations people. It is home to many unique plants and animals, some of which are endangered.

The Basin is also Australia's most significant agricultural region. Around 40% of Australian farms are in the Basin and use its water to grow food and other produce.

It is important that we protect the health of the Murray-Darling Basin so that its communities, industries, animals and the environment can thrive.

Communities rely on water from Basin rivers

Clean, safe water is important for human health. People living in and around the Murray-Darling Basin rely on water from the rivers, streams and groundwater for drinking and for household use.

Good-quality water supports communities in other ways too. Businesses such as cafes, restaurants and retail stores, and schools and universities all use water as part of daily life. Locals and tourists also enjoy the rivers for recreational activities such as swimming and fishing.

Without clean, safe water, communities suffer. People's health can be at risk if tap water is not safe to drink and use. Poor water quality also affects the environment, and when waterways become unsafe for recreational use, tourism declines. This affects businesses and the local economy.

Farmers rely on water from Basin rivers

Almost half of all Australian farms are in the Murray-Darling Basin. Each year, they grow around $22 billion worth of food and other products, which are supplied to Australians and the rest of the world. This value is important to Australia’s economy.

To supply this food and fibre, many of these farms rely on irrigation. Irrigated crops need access to a lot of water to grow crops, and healthy river systems are an important part of ensuring irrigation water is available for farming.

Many towns and communities in the Basin rely on income from farming. Without good quality water for irrigation and other industries, jobs, business and communities will be at risk.

First Nations people rely on water from Basin rivers

The Murray-Darling Basin is home to more than 50 different First Nations. First Nations people have lived in the Basin for more than 60,000 years and have a special connection to its waterways.

Water is an important part of First Nations culture. It maintains a connection with Country and is essential to identity and well-being.

First Nations people rely on water to carry out cultural traditions such as fishing, hunting, ceremonies and harvesting plants. There are also many sacred and culturally significant sites in the Basin.

Without enough water flowing through these areas, people can lose their connection to Country. Cultural sites degrade, and First Nations people cannot carry out traditional activities.

Lack of water also means food sources become scarce, which puts First Nations communities at risk.

The environment relies on water from Basin rivers

Many unique plant and animal species live in the Murray-Darling Basin including:

  • 120 water bird species
  • more than 50 native fish species
  • 16 internationally recognised wetlands.

Some of these plants and animals aren't found anywhere else in the world. The plants, animals and wetlands of the Basin need water to survive.

Although it spans a large area, the Basin is a connected system. When parts of the system run out of water, the whole ecosystem is at risk.

Forest and wetland ecosystems help to keep the river system healthy. Tree and plant roots stabilise riverbanks, reducing erosion, while wetlands improve water quality by absorbing excess nutrients. This all helps to protect fish and aquatic life.

Without enough water, algal blooms and salt concentrations increase. Wetlands dry out and perish. When their habitats dry out, animals become stressed, stop breeding and even die.

When the environment doesn't get enough water, this affects the communities and industries that rely on Basin water. Increased salt levels in the water can make it unsafe for drinking and watering crops. Algal blooms can also be harmful to human health, as well as plants and animals.

How is the Murray-Darling Basin managed?

The Basin Plan aims to better manage the water and improve the long-term health of the river system. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) manages the Basin as one connected system.

There are limits on how much water can be used in any one place. This makes sure enough water is left in the system for downstream users and the environment. Basin governments work together to make sure the Basin’s water is safe, gets to those who need it, is used sustainably, and shared fairly.

Murray-Darling Basin Plan

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan (the Basin Plan) was developed as a requirement of the Commonwealth Water Act 2007.

It sets the amount of water that can be taken from the Basin each year, while leaving enough for our rivers, lakes and wetlands and the plants and animals that depend on them. This amount is called the Sustainable Diversion Limit (SDL).

Read the plan

How water is allocated in the Murray River?

The Commonwealth and Basin states work together to manage the water in the Murray and Lower Darling rivers. This video gives an overview of how we share the water, fairly, transparently, and sustainably.

Who is responsible for managing water in the Murray-Darling Basin?

Responsibility is shared between the Basin governments and partners, including:

  • Murray-Darling Basin Authority
  • New South Wales Government
  • Queensland Government
  • South Australian Government
  • Victorian Government
  • Australian Capital Territory Government
  • Australian Government Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water
  • Commonwealth Environmental Water Office.

Responsibilities are divided.

How is the department responsible?

State responsibilities include:

  • allocating water to entitlement holders
  • managing water that isn’t managed by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority
  • maintaining dams and water storages outside the River Murray system (this is done by WaterNSW)
  • proposing, designing and implementing projects to enhance effectiveness of water delivery systems and reduce water losses
  • developing formal plans about how to manage water to comply with the Basin Plan.
More information about the Murray-Darling Basin

Find out more about the Murray-Darling Basin including water plans and current projects.

Find out more