Water reform package 'empty'

August 27, 1997

Water reform package "empty"

By Chris Spindler

SYDNEY — The Carr state Labor government's long-awaited water reform package has changed little. The plan sets targets for increasing water flows in rivers and reducing irrigation allocation, but does nothing to ensure that this will happen.

Water flow allocations will remain the same for at least the next year. The package also favours the future of irrigator licences, by setting a limit for increasing flows from irrigation to the environment of 10% over the next five years.

Water extraction by irrigators has been continually increasing, and damming has put the environmental survival of the inland rivers in question.

A lack of water flow is a significant contributor to outbreaks of blue-green algae, increasing concentration of pollutants and increased salinity.

Increases in water licences for irrigation farming has deprived many of the natural marshes (like the Macquarie Marsh in the north of the state) of water flow required for their natural filtering and cleansing role.

A recent report by the Department of Land and Water Conservation showed high phosphorus concentrations and low water quality in many of the western rivers, high bacteriological levels at many sites in the Barwon, Hunter and central-western regions and nitrate concentrations exceeding drinking water levels in ground water at about 300 sites throughout NSW.

A NSW fisheries survey found severe decline of native fish numbers, particularly in the Murray.

There is significant opposition to the government's do nothing approach. The Total Environment Centre, Australian Conservation Foundation, the Inland Rivers Network and the Nature Conservation Council were all critical of the government, pointing out that NSW rivers need something like a 20% allocation above current flows.

However, Friends of the Earth congratulated the state government on the package, saying the extra year at current water extraction levels meant water extractors had some time to adjust.

Other measures in the package include community-based management committees which will recommend river flows for each river valley. "Indicative rules" will guide the committees, which will be made up of government agencies, water users and Aboriginal, industry and environmental interests.

The package also brings into existence water licence transfers — essentially a free market for water use. This will aid the big producers by allowing them to buy up water licences.

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