NSW government to blame for water failures

August 31, 2021
Floodplain harvesting in northern NSW. Photo: Supplied

No matter which landholder you talk to about water troubles in New South Wales, they all blame government failures.

Southern Murray Darling Basin water users in NSW are pitched against northern Murray Darling Basin irrigators.

The south accuses the north of stealing water from the basin’s upper reaches and NSW water minister Melinda Pavey of trying to legalise the steal.

The northern irrigators say the NSW Legislative Council is trying to scupper Pavey’s attempts to make water theft legal.

The government has been told floodplain harvesting — taking water without a licence — is illegal. Twice, the Legislative Council has disallowed regulations that would have made it legal.

Now, stakeholders have been left to slug it out among themselves.

On September 30, a Legislative Council select committee into floodplain harvesting will begin its hearings.

Southern Riverina Irrigators (SRI) chairperson Chris Brooks, who farms near the top of the southern Basin below the massive Hume Dam built to regulate the Murray, watched for 2.5 years as the Murray ran over capacity in southern NSW.

He regularly flies over the northern basin’s huge dams, brimful with largely free water, which can be tided over for multiple growing seasons.

Now, the Hume is almost full. But Murray Irrigators have received just 30% of their allocation to grow food and fibre, despite being billed for infrastructure to supply 100%.

Remuneration for those farmers’ lost income is the subject of a class action against the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA).

The government is proposing to allow 500% “carry over” water.

Pavey wants to licence 390 gigalitres to northern floodplain harvesters, plus a 500% carry over. This means that 1950 gigalitres of free water could be held by irrigators in the system’s upper reaches in any one year, more than South Australia (SA) is assured in a year.

SRI contends that in 1994 — a historical benchmark to which the government refers — the entire holding capacity of northern floodplain harvesters was just 46 gigalitres.

Australian Floodplain Association (AFA) President Justin McClure said greed was driving backroom deals among those jostling for a bigger share of water along the Darling.

First Nations

First Nations groups, simply trying to survive, have to compete with monied interest groups.

Representatives for the Kamilaroi Nhurrumbah said water for human need is being emptied out of storage dams to facilitate the capture of irrigation water and that cotton is more easily and efficiently stored than water.

“The cotton industry has lobbied hard to draw down public dams and the NSW government has been complicit,” Alfred Priestley said in an August 13 submission to the inquiry.

“It appears to the Indigenous peoples of the northern basin that this is a continuation of the process that began 230 years ago to destroy our civilization, which is the oldest in the world," wrote Priestley.

Southern water users claim floodplain harvesting ran the Darling River dry. Scientists agree that floodplain harvesting has sped up the crippling effects of drought.

A dry Darling River, the Murray’s second-largest tributary, is where problems begin in the southern basin. SA receives a mandatory 1850 gigalitres of water year.

Without water in the Darling, the Murray must deliver SA’s entire share. This means irrigators reliant on paid-for allocations from the Murray miss out as the water rushes by, en route elsewhere.

Murray Darling Basin Authority

The MDBA runs the Murray hard, forcing the required water to SA and orchards downstream to the point where natural constraints, such as the Barmah Choke, have been in flood for months during drought in the summer.

Where the river narrows during floods, water spreads out and forests that would dry out in summer are kept saturated, killing trees, stranding wildlife and damaging the riparian environment.

Meanwhile, southern NSW and northern Victorian water users have been left to watch the Murray running so hard its banks are being eroded but they cannot touch a drop.

But floodplain harvesting and floodwater holding capability in the north has grown exponentially for decades.

NSW Irrigators Council chairperson Jim Cush, who harvests floodplains, told Green Left it had doubled between 1993 and 2008. “No-one said, ‘No more, stop development’ and they never did.”

Facing the prospect of northern floodplain harvesters being monitored for the first time in history, the NSW Irrigators Council (NSWIC) has demanded the government pay for new water meters.

This rings hollow in the south where water users, metered for decades, paid for their own.

“Water users, large and small, across NSW are facing tens of thousands of dollars in additional costs to replace existing meters with new meters meeting the new standard,” said NSWIC chief executive Claire Miller in July.

Irrigators Council on whose side?

Whose side is the NSWIC on?

Helen Dalton, the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party MP for Murray, said it was the northern irrigators.

Over the past three years, many southern associations have left the NSWIC, including the two largest irrigation schemes, Murrumbidgee Irrigation and Murray Irrigation, both from the south.

Southern Riverina Irrigators, Murrumbidgee Valley Food and Fibre Association, Murray Valley Private Diverters and West Corurgan Private Irrigation have also left.

One of the few remaining southern basin groups to stay is the Ricegrowers Association of Australia.

According to Murrumbidgee Valley Food and Fibre Association president Debbie Buller, her organisation parted ways with the NSWIC because it was asked to collect levies. 

“They wanted us to collect the nine-cents-per-megalitre levy from water users in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area; they actually redefined our group’s role,” said Buller.

“Constitutionally, we couldn’t [collect money] and, unless we fulfilled that role, we were told we couldn’t be members,” she said.

The NSWIC does not receive levies from non-members.

Dalton, whose farm produces cotton, corn and rice in the southern basin, is not surprised by NSWIC essentially forcing its own members away.

“At the irrigators’ council, it’s about money; money buys you influence,” she told GL.

Brooks suggested the missing levies had probably been replaced by cashed-up northern cotton growers.

As the southern basin is metered, there are known, verifiable volumes as opposed to the north’s unregulated rivers. Governments therefore regard the region as low-hanging fruit when looking to buy back water from irrigators.

Southern rural communities have been devastated by water buybacks. AFA president Justin McClure said water users at the top of the system were being prioritised at the expense of entire communities downstream.

“Is the cap really a cap?” he asked.

McClure said that licensing floodplain harvesting will result in extra water being taken, making a mockery of statutory water limits already set.

He wants the government to adjust supplementary licences in the upstream valleys to meet the NSW cap. “Upstream irrigators are yet to give up a drop of water, according to the MDBP plan.”https://ssl.gstatic.com/ui/v1/icons/mail/images/cleardot.gif

McClure said the solution was meaningful downstream targets.

“Illegal structures — be they dams, roads or railway lines — must be either decommissioned or modified so they don’t interfere with the natural flow of water across the landscape.”

Brooks thinks the inquiry will uncover the truth — that Pavey’s proposed floodplain regulation was not only illegal, according to state laws, but also according to the Murray Darling Basin Plan’s rules.

The inquiry must report its findings by November 30.

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