Despite recent rains, the water crisis of inland northern New South Wales communities is far from dissipating.
People in far-western communities, especially those with large Aboriginal populations, have been forced to leave because over-extraction from their rivers by corporate irrigators has left the remaining water unfit for human use. For more than a year many have relied on drinking water trucked in by charities.
February’s heavy rains brought first flush flows into the Upper Darling and Barwon rivers. But many inland catchments remain depleted as industrial-scale extractions and diversions continue.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported on February 18 that data presented to the NSW government shows 99.4% of NSW is still in drought, with about one-third in the highest category of “intense drought”. Queensland also faces a drier and warmer autumn and Western Australia is experiencing an unprecedented dry period, with water being trucked to a growing number of towns and farming areas.
In late November, Prime7 News Central West reported the NSW government would make the drastic move of relocating populations from towns without any water supply. Asked how many towns faced the prospect of completely running out of water, NSW Regional Town Water Supply Coordinator and Cross Border Commissioner James McTavish said: “We have about 90 towns and communities that we have substantial concerns about now”.
McTavish told ABC Radio National's Breakfast on February 19 the future of several towns along the east coast had improved after the rains. However, many inland town supplies are so low that the small amount of rainfall they received had not significantly lifted dam levels. Some major towns remain on the Day Zero (when water runs out) watch list.
McTavish said he has concerns about the Peel River, which supplies Tamworth, towns along the Macquarie River below Burrendong Dam, the Lachlan Valley below Wyangala Dam and even towns upstream, including Bathurst and Orange.
The disastrous summer bushfires contaminated the Brogo Dam, jeopardising the water supply of the coastal town of Bega. Despite bushfires destroying much of the Warragamba Dam catchment, Sydney Water announced there has been no impact on its water quality and relaxed water restrictions from March 1.
To the great relief of many, the devastated Upper Darling and Barwon river systems are once again beginning to flow. In towns that suffered temperatures as high as 47.9°C through summer, with water shortages and dying rivers, children are at last coming out to play and families are coming back to the banks to picnic.
Downstream flows have reached Bourke and, if the pumping embargo continues, are expected to reach Wilcannia and the Menindee Lakes by late March, where communities are suffering the loss of fauna and habitat and are weary of relying on charity water being trucked in.
“It makes me sick to see even the 'roos and the emus staggering and dying of thirst and hunger,” Menindee resident Barry Stone told Water for Rivers on February 19. “There are many dry lagoons and kilometres of dry river bed to replenish before the water can get to the dried expanses of the Menindee Lakes."
Mass fish deaths in the Menindee Lakes and the Upper Darling River attracted world attention early last year and more fish kills have been recorded this year in the Macquarie River around Dubbo. Last September, the Natural Resources Commission described parts of the Barwon-Darling river system, which runs through Menindee, as an “ecosystem in crisis”.
Hopes were raised for the Menindee Lakes after Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) CEO Philip Glyde told a meeting of stakeholders on February 5 that first flows would flow directly downriver — “No pumping”.
To achieve the first full flush of the river in many years, NSW ordered a temporary restriction on floodplain harvesting from February 7 until the end of the month. Queensland had already lifted its embargo on pumping and a “war of words” followed between Queensland’s Natural Resource Minister Anthony Lynham and NSW Water Minister Melinda Pavey.
Pavey lifted the embargo only three days later, enabling floodplain harvesting in parts of the Gwydir, Namoi and Barwon-Darling floodplains. She defended her decision by claiming it was limited to a “couple or a few properties”.
Vital flows to the Lower Darling system are now being jeopardised with pumping and diversions restarting in Queensland and now the Upper Darling. The Australia Institute water analyst Mary Anne Slattery said many of the works used to capture or redirect water on floodplains have never been formally approved and the water diverted from reaching the rivers has not been included in water accounting totals.
Water agreements fracture
The agreement between state and federal governments to manage the environmental flows under the Murray Darling Basin Plan (MDBP) continues to fracture.
The Four Corners story "Pumped", broadcast on June 24, 2017, exposed the failures of water monitoring and enforcement of extraction limits in NSW. NSW has now established an independent regulator and several prosecutions over fraudulent extractions and meter tampering are commencing from March.
NSW’s management of river systems has come under fresh attack for its failure to monitor how much water was available and how much has been removed. New independent audits of the 25 river management plans that govern water sharing between towns, irrigators and the environment, were damning.
The Audits leaked to The Sydney Morning Herald reveal mismanagement, lack of resources, blame-shifting between agencies, and a lack of monitoring on how much water remained in the rivers and what was being used.
Failure to provide audited water sharing plans has led the federal government to withhold $16 million in funding for NSW water management. Federal water resources minister Keith Pitt granted a further extension to enable the NSW government to get its house in order before it exercises its powers to take control of water for the environment.
The NSW Nationals, including Pavey and leader John Barilaro, continue to bluster that they will drop out of the MDBP unless the state is excused from returning an outstanding 450 gigalitres of water to environmental flows. They are also demanding a major rewrite of the MDBP, including counting evaporation losses towards water for the environment.
The federal water ministry has become a hot potato, with several changes of minister and portfolios. Ministers, including former water minister David Littleproud, have required security when touring regional areas to discuss water policy and the MDBA. A large contingent of angry irrigators marched on Parliament House in November.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison appointed Queenslander Keith Pitt as the new water minister on February 6. Victorian Independent MP for Shepparton Suzanna Sheed criticised the appointment saying Pitt does not have any experience in the portfolio, does not represent electorates in the basin and has too many ties to the Queensland cotton and mining industries.
According to Slattery, in the past 25 years Australia has undergone one of the largest privatisations of water in the world. In the John Howard government’s pursuit of national resource productivity, water rights were separated from land title and a national water market was created.
Since then, prices for water have soared. Under current climatic and market conditions, many landholders have been priced out of the market, finding it pays more to leave the tractor in the shed and sell their water entitlements to the highest bidder: a mine or a speculator. Australia’s water entitlement market is now worth more than $30 billion.
Last year, the federal government released the first Register of Foreign Ownership of Water Entitlements. This revealed that across the country — including all industries, in all states and territories — about 10% of Australia’s water entitlements were foreign-owned.
Just last month another major foreign investment was made into Australia’s water market. The Canadian Public Sector Pension Fund (PSP) bought a major share in Webster Limited, whose controlling interest remains with industrialist Chris Corrigan. Since the February 18 buyout, PSP now holds licenses for 200,000 megalitres (ML), 2% of Australia’s total water holdings.
PSP also bought 12,000 hectares of Victorian almond orchards in December and later spent $490 million buying 89,085ML of permanent water rights from the Singapore-based global food and agribusiness Olam to sustain these orchards. The sale of the orchards has been approved by the Foreign Investment Review Board, but the water transaction did not need its approval.
NSW MPs will debate the establishment of a national water ownership register after Shooters Fishers & Farmers MP Helen Dalton presented an 11,000-signature petition to NSW parliament. Dalton, who owns 1383ML of high-security water and 3324ML of general security water in the Murrumbidgee Valley, has been campaigning to introduce laws that would force corporations and politicians to publicly declare what water entitlements they own.
Diverting public funds
Public money is being used to subsidise Australia’s huge water privatisation. The Australia Institute released a report in October saying that at least 20 to 30 large private dams have been constructed in the Murray-Darling Basin in recent years. “It appears that just two of these dams cost taxpayers nearly $30 million,” the report said.
These dams are then bought by foreign investment companies that are also buying up water-hungry nut orchards. Slattery said politicians do not want to talk about these dams because “they do nothing for drought-stricken communities, the health of the river or struggling farmers”.
“These dams have been built on private land and are for the exclusive use of corporate agribusiness, such as Webster Limited,” she said. “Politicians are reluctant to talk about why millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent subsidising dams that make the problems of the Murray–Darling Basin worse.”
The report looked at three dams on properties in the Murrumbidgee Valley owned by Webster Ltd: Glenmea, Bringagee and Kooba Station. The dams were funded by the federal government’s $4 billion water efficiency program.
“However, none of the three case-study dams in this report save water in this way,” the report said. “They are new dams, not replacing smaller, shallower dams. Water stored behind their approximately eight-metre-high walls would otherwise be stored in public headwater dams around 100 metres deep.
“These dams are designed to divert normal irrigation water and ‘supplementary water’ — not to simply recycle irrigation water. Thus they increase both evaporation and irrigation water use…
“With major dams now targeting this water, the Murrumbidgee could be disconnected from the Murray in most years. This has implications for all NSW Basin water users, who are already grappling with how to meet downstream obligations within the Murray’s constraints and with no water coming down the Darling.
“The new dams that Australian taxpayers helped build appear to be highly valued by international investors.”
There are growing demands from community groups along the Murray and Darling rivers for a federal Royal Commission into the MDBA and political interference.
South Australia’s Royal Commission into the MDBA cited maladministration and unlawful actions by Commonwealth officers. It found the MDBA had ignored its legal requirement to ensure Australia meets its environmental obligations to set a basin-wide sustainable diversion limit.
“The MDBA failed to act on the best available scientific knowledge" and was captured by politics, it said. The Commission’s report was particularly damning of the MDBA's failure to incorporate climate science in developing the MDBP for management of the rivers, finding it “negligent”, “indefensible” and “unlawful”.
A year after the report’s release, communities are still demanding immediate action.
The ongoing impacts of water privatisation are beginning to mobilise river communities to campaign for water to be taken off the market, to stop low flow extractions and to end floodplain harvesting. Community water campaigns also want stolen water flow resumed to replenish dying rivers and for safe water supplies to be restored to communities.
A protest to blockade Wilcannia Bridge is being organised for March 13, and activists have called for other NSW and Queensland towns to join them in a national "BBQ protest on the Bridge" to highlight the water crisis and demand water be returned to rivers and communities.
[Tracey Carpenter is a Sydney activist with the Water for Rivers campaign. Elena Garcia is a regenerative marginal country grazier in the Condamine catchment, Queensland.]