Rivers in crisis: Killing rivers for mines and irrigators

August 22, 2019
The Murray Darling.

The Broken Hill water pipeline has been exposed as a vital element in a plan to sacrifice the Lower Darling and Murray rivers to the interests of corporate irrigators and the mining industry.

A 2016 business case report into the $500 million Broken Hill pipeline, made public by Independent New South Wales MLC Justin Field on August 14, has revealed the project was built to meet the needs of irrigators and mines while ignoring impacts on the environment and regional towns in New South Wales and Queensland that are run out of water.

The report focused on shifting the water source for Broken Hill, in far west NSW, from the Menindee Lakes to the Murray River to free up extraction for irrigators further upstream and provide water for two new mines.

Quoting figures from the Cotton Growers Association, the report said that going ahead with the pipeline and drying up the Menindee Lakes would put 50 billion litres of water into irrigator dams in the northern reaches of the Darling River, contributing an estimated $120 million to agricultural output.

Field said: “Any way you cut this, the pipeline is a half-billion dollar gift to Northern Basin irrigators,” adding this is “a disaster” for the dying Darling River.

Field said the business case report echoes findings of the recently released Natural Resources Commission review of the Barwon-Darling Water Sharing Plan, which found over-extraction by irrigators and other users had brought forward drought conditions in parts of the river system by three years.

“The reality is that this [drought] has been a manufactured crisis,” Field said. “Broken Hill didn’t have a water security problem until upstream irrigators were allowed by the NSW government to suck the river system.

“This pipeline allows that unsustainable water use to continue and risks the long-term health of the river and the Menindee Lakes.”

Menindee Lakes

Politicians claim that the push to deliberately dry out the Menindee Lakes is because it is more efficient and less wasteful than pumping water into the new, bigger and deeper on-farm dams that big irrigators have built upstream with government grants.

The grants were largely given to irrigators in the electorates of former federal water ministers Barnaby Joyce and David Littleproud.

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald in March last year, Helen Vivian noted that in “December 2016, the Menindee Lakes were at 89 per cent capacity. Just four months later they were down to 45 per cent...

“Very little if any of the water from the floods in early 2017 reached the Menindee Lakes. It was allocated and distributed to upstream irrigators.

“The recent frequent drying of the Darling River is a man-made situation. Fifty-six years passed between the ‘no-flow events’ of 1945 and 2001. Now they are an almost annual occurrence and the length of time during which the river ceases to flow has doubled.”

The business case report did not consider the environmental impact of draining the Menindee Lakes, extra extraction from the Murray River nor the clearing of trees and other vegetation and wildlife to make way for the pipeline.

Ecologists say the lakes and wetlands are a key part of maintaining water flows and preventing mass fish kills in the river systems. They are also crucial migratory waterbird habitats and fish breeding areas that supply the whole river.

Professor Fran Sheldon from the Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University, wrote in The Conversation: “All the main tributaries of the Darling River have floodplain wetland complexes in their lower reaches (such as the Gwydir Wetlands, Macquarie Marshes and Narran Lakes).

“When the rivers flow they absorb the water from upstream, filling before releasing water downstream to the next wetland complex; the wetlands acting like a series of tipping buckets. Regular river flows are essential for these sponge-like wetlands.

“While high flows will still make it through the Barwon-Darling, filling the floodplains and wetlands, and connecting to the River Murray, the low and medium flow events have disappeared.

“Instead, these are captured in the upper sections of the basin in artificial water storages and used in irrigation. This has essentially dried the wetlands and floodplains at the ends of the tributaries.

“Any water not diverted for irrigation is now absorbed by the continually parched upstream wetlands, leaving the lower reaches vulnerable when drought hits.

“By continually keeping the Barwon-Darling in a state of low (or no) flow, with its natural wetlands dry, we have reduced its ability to cope with extended drought.”

Mining profits before people

Drying the lakes also means the 18,000 residents of Broken Hill need a new water supply.

Since March, Broken Hill has been drawing water from the Murray River near Wentworth, in the far south-west of NSW, via the 270-kilometre pipeline that supplies the city with up to 37.4 million litres during peak daily demand.

This is despite more than 13,300 people signed a petition to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian against the new pipeline and in favour of upgrading the existing pipeline from the Menindee Lakes for half the cost.

Broken Hill residents will pay at least part of the cost of the pipeline along with ongoing operations and maintenance costs.

Conveniently, the new pipeline ensures secure water supply for two new mines, Perilya Mines and Hawsons Iron Project.

The business case report noted that mining near Broken Hill uses 50% of the potable water supplied to the region.

It added: “For mining companies, scarce water availability may eventually require the mines to become wholly self-sufficient which will require additional investment and approvals placing additional pressure on the viability of the region’s primary industry.”

While concentrating on the economic benefits of diverting water for irrigation and mining use, the report makes virtually no comment on the negative economic impact that the shrinking of the Menindee Lakes will have on tourism, downstream farming or indigenous Barkandji communities, who had the water at the heart of their successful native title claim stripped out of it with no say.

In a submission to the Barwon-Darling Water Sharing Plan review, Barkandji elder Badger Bates said: “In the last five years our elders are giving up and dying. Then our young people are committing suicide. And it’s hurting because of the river.

“How can I teach culture when they’re taking our beloved Baaka away? There’s nothing to teach if there’s no river. The river is everything. It’s my life, my culture.

“You take the water away from us, we’ve got nothing.”

The Australia Institute (TAI) released a report on January 19 that found the fish kill crisis on the Lower Darling is largely due to the decisions of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, on instruction from the New South Wales government.

It said the reasons for those decisions appear to be about building the case for the Broken Hill pipeline and draining the Menindee Lakes project.

The TAI report noted: “These are opposed locally and have proceeded with minimal transparency around business cases, cultural and environmental impacts. They are easier to justify if the lakes are empty and Broken Hill appears at risk of running out of water.”

[Elena Garcia is a grazier based in former federal water minister David Littleproud’s Queensland electorate of Maranoa.]

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