Management of the 2020 Northern Basin First Flush Event – NSW

Independent Panel Assessment of the Management of the 2020 Northern Basin First Flush Event

Final Report – September 2020

From late January to the end of April 2020, widespread rain fell across various parts of northwest New South Wales (NSW) and southern Queensland, with some parts receiving more than
200 mm of rain in just a couple of days. This rainfall created significant inflows
to the Northern Murray-Darling Basin Border Rivers, Peel, Namoi, Gwydir and Macquarie
valleys and along the Barwon-Darling River, for the first time in several years following an
extended record drought.

A series of temporary restrictions on water extractions (including by floodplain harvesting)
across the northern NSW rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin were introduced in January-March
2020 under the provisions of the NSW Water Management Act 2000 (WM Act), to responsively
manage the first flows and prioritise water security for critical human and environmental needs
which had been exacerbated by the extreme drought. This became known as the 2020 Northern
Basin First Flush event. It was the first time that NSW managed a first flush event in this way.

In March 2020, the NSW Government commissioned an independent assessment into the
management of the 2020 Northern Basin First Flush event following the 2018-2019 drought in
the Northern Murray-Darling Basin.

Key Findings:
  • Management of the 2020 Northern Basin First Flush Event was complex.
  • The first flush event achieved some wonderful outcomes for an environment and communities in need.
  • These positive outcomes have been overshadowed by significant levels of frustration and stress across communities.
  • The Panel believes that there was insufficient resourcing in place to adequately plan and communicate for the first flush event.
  • The decision-making framework and flow forecasting were reasonably robust, but there are some important improvements to be made.
  • Transparency of decision-making and communications need to be improved for future events.
  • Use of temporary water restrictions demonstrated NSW Government’s commitment to protecting environmental water and implementing some, but not all, of the recommendations arising from the Ken Matthews inquiry, Vertessy report and NRC review.
  • The continued implementation of NSW reforms regarding metering, floodplain harvesting and connectivity is crucial to improving first flush management.
  • While first flush events could be successfully managed under temporary water restrictions, embedding arrangements in the regulatory and policy framework would enhance transparency and certainty.

IRN submission to the draft report 200809

Overview of the final report

Final Report

Controversial Menindee Lakes proposal labelled a waste of time as stakeholder group puts talks on hold

ABC Broken Hill

By Declan Gooch and Christopher Testa

Landholders frustrated over a controversial plan to store less water in the Menindee Lakes have suspended talks with the NSW Government.

Key points:

  • The NSW Government wants to reduce evaporation at the Menindee Lakes
  • It is proposing several changes that would result in the Menindee Lakes holding less water
  • Stakeholders say the Government first needs to ensure water can make it there from upstream

The Menindee Lakes Water Saving Project proposes changes to rules and infrastructure at the lakes to reduce the level of evaporation.

The changes would have the effect of reducing the usual capacity of the lakes, which opponents say would result in longer periods of no flow in the Darling River below them.

Read the full story here

 

Let the Rivers Run

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald 20th July 2020

The Murray Darling Basin Plan came into effect on June 30, 2019. One year later there is still a shortfall of 46.7 billion litres in water recovery, mainly in the Northern Basin that feeds the Darling River (“Department failed taxpayers with water buyback program”, July 17). The auditor-general report found private deals with irrigators is not the best value for taxpayers. The cheapest, most effective way to get water back into our rivers, to prevent catastrophes like the fish kills in the Darling, is to run voluntary, open tender buyback programs. Combine this approach with targeted investment in regional communities to assist economic diversification and improved services, then everyone wins.

Bev Smiles,

President,

Inland Rivers Network, Pyrmont.

 

Govt tight-lipped on ACCC Murray–Darling Basin water report

The Saturday Paper – Margaret Simons 4/7/2020

“When you’ve got 60 or 70 per cent of the activity in that market with prices that are zero or non-commercial, then you know that technically the market isn’t real,” says Loch. “I’ve spent years studying water prices and I came home after reflecting on all this and said to my wife last night, ‘Ask me how much the price of water is’, and when she did, I responded, ‘What do you want it to be?’”….

“Australia leads the world in commodifying water. The Murray–Darling Basin markets were created by a series of reforms from the 1980s and ’90s in which water licences were separated from the ownership of land.” ….

“It’s impossible for ordinary citizens to find out who owns water, or who has made a trade. Trading data is collected by the states, with variations and inconsistencies between jurisdictions, and then is aggregated by the Bureau of Meteorology – which “cleanses” the data, excluding low- and high-priced trades before calculating average water prices.”

Read the Full Article Here

Read the Lifeblood Alliance submission to Murray-Darling Basin water markets inquiry

“Our key concern relates to the water market policy that seeks to appropriately manage the third party hydrological and environmental impacts of changes in the timing and location of water use that arise from water trading activities.

There are a number of legal requirements in regard to protecting the environment from the impacts of water trading. The current increase in water trading to downstream developments in the Murray southern connected Basin is causing significant environmental impacts that are not being adequately addressed.

Under the Commonwealth Water Act 2007 Schedule 3 restrictions to water trading are required when:

  • avoiding environmental impacts.
  • protecting water quality.
  • facing delivery constraints
  • geographical features are being impacted
  • major indigenous, cultural heritage or spiritual significance would be impacted.

Recommendations:

1. Seasonal flow limits must be assigned to rivers at risk similar to the limits on the Barmah Choke.
2. Establish a National Water Trading Exchange to increase transparency and improve capacity to better manage third-party and environmental impacts.
3. Increase Federal responsibility for the alignment of State regulations and polices. Many of the third-party and environmental impacts are the result of, or enhanced by, state divisions and misalignment of policies.

 

 

Lifeblood Alliance consists of environmental, Indigenous and community groups committed to keeping the rivers, wetlands and aquifers of the Murray-Darling Basin healthy for the benefit of current and future generations.

Australian Conservation Foundation, NSW Nature Conservation Council, Conservation Council of South Australia, Environment Victoria, Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations, Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations, River Lakes and Coorong Action Group, Environmental Farmers Network, Inland Rivers Network, National Parks Association of NSW, Goulburn Valley Environment Group, Healthy Rivers Dubbo and Central West Environment Council.

NSW Water Sharing Plans set to fail farmers, communities and the environment

Environmental Defenders Office

The NSW Government is poised to sign off on plans for the Murray-Darling that will lock in inadequate volumes of environmental water for the next decade.

The Water Sharing Plans set out how water in the river system is shared between irrigators, other farmers, communities and the environment. They also put limits on what can be extracted from the rivers and groundwater.

These plans are the most important part of the water reform process. They set in stone rules that govern water sharing for the next 10 years.

EDO lawyers have identified multiple flaws with the proposed Water Sharing Plans, including some which could give rise to legal action by our clients.

Read More

The Guardian New plans for Barwon-Darling river system still prioritise irrigation over environment

Clouds become water entitlements in ad hoc river plan, paper finds

Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Hannam 6/2/2020

Billions of dollars in water licences and infrastructure in the Murray-Darling Basin hinge on complex and opaque rules that vary greatly between rivers, with downstream communities and the environment often losing out.

Those are the findings of researchers from the University of NSW who studied how different rules affected water allocations for irrigators and wetlands on two rivers, the Macquarie and Gwydir.

Human intervention rather than actual water availability played a big role in outcomes, especially in dry periods.

The Macquarie was treated as a “credit” river, with allocations based on historic records of rainfall and run-off into the main Burrendong dam. During the recent drought, the river’s water-sharing plan was suspended.

“The credit rule is essentially allocating clouds – water that hasn’t even fallen in the catchment yet,” said Celine Steinfeld, lead author of the paper published in the Journal of Hydrology, and also a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists. “It was clear that water in the Macquarie had been overallocated.”

Read Story Here

Legal action looms over water sharing plans

Sydney Morning Herald By Harriet Alexander May 29, 2020

Floodplain graziers and environmental groups are considering legal action against the NSW government if it signs off on controversial water sharing plans, arguing the plans do not adequately take into account the needs of downstream users and the environment.

The Australian Floodplain Association, Macquarie Marshes Environmental Landholders Association and Inland Rivers Network have not ruled out litigation in the Land and Environment Court or the Federal Court if the plans are not amended to more evenly share the pain of a drier climate.

Grazier Stuart Le Lievre, who lives on the Darling River between Louth and Tilpa in northwest NSW, said the connectivity of the system meant that unsustainable extraction under one plan had consequences for every catchment.

“The whole essence, which everyone knows, is the bucket of water is nowhere what it used to be,” said Mr Le Lievre, vice president of the Australian Floodplain Association.

“[The northern basin irrigators] haven’t given up anything. They’ve still got all their entitlements. When it gets to the Barwon Darling, what have we got to share?”

Emma Carmody, special counsel for the Environmental Defenders Office, said that if the upper catchments were governed by plans that did not adequately consider the downstream impact of extraction, there may be not be enough water in the system to supply the lower part of the river.

This ran counter to the water sharing principles set out in legislation – that water sources and their dependent ecosystems needed to be protected first and foremost, followed by basic landholder rights. Town water and stock and domestic use also took precedence over irrigation.

Dr Carmody argued in a piece published in the EDO bulletin on Friday that this left the plans open to a challenge in the Land and Environment Court or Federal Court.

“The environment … needs specific volumes of water at specific times to stay alive,” said Dr Carmody, who represents some of the groups considering litigation.

“That’s why mandatory rules in water sharing plans that protect first flows after drought, low flows and all environmental flows from extraction are absolutely vital. There are also legal obligations under both state and commonwealth laws that can only be properly satisfied if these rules are in place.”

Water sharing plans set out how water is divided between irrigators, towns and the environment in each catchment and set limits on what can be extracted from the rivers and groundwater for the next decade.

Water Minister Melinda Pavey wants them signed off by June 30, when the water resource plans that they underpin are due to be submitted to the federal government under the Murray Darling Basin Plan. But the old water sharing plans have not expired and there are calls for the drafts to be amended before they are signed.

Chairman of the Macquarie Marshes Environmental Landholders Association Garry Hall was on the stakeholder advisory panel for the Macquarie water sharing plan. He said it was hamstrung by a ministerial requirement that no third party could be adversely affected.

“We couldn’t restrict take, so to me it was just shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic,” Mr Hall said.

“The solution was deemed to be out of scope. It was very much influenced by a large representation from the irrigation community.”

NSW Irrigation Council chief executive Luke Simpkins said all the water sharing plans considered downstream users and any legal action was unlikely to be successful.

“People down there say that northern irrigators have got their hands around the neck of the National party MPs and it’s just not true, because otherwise where’s the 100 per cent general security allocations?” Mr Simpkins said.

“It’s just not happening and these conspiracy theories are just a distraction from the main event.”

https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/legal-action-looms-over-water-sharing-plans-20200526-p54wkn.html

Latest drought data not used in new water plans

Sydney Morning Herald

By Harriet Alexander and Peter Hannam

The NSW government will not take into account the latest drought in calculating how much water should be available to irrigators under draft plans condemned by regional councils and a Nationals MP.

While dams that supply some of the state’s biggest towns still hover below 20 per cent capacity, the government is poised to sign off on a water allocation system that backdates the “drought of record” gauge used as far back as 2004.

The NSW upper house passed a motion last week calling on Water Minister Melinda Pavey to amend the plans using up-to-date drought figures before submitting the water resource plans to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority for accreditation.

https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/latest-drought-data-not-used-in-new-water-plans-20200518-p54ty9.html

More questions raised about Macquarie River re-regulating storage project

Daily Liberal IRN letter 6/5/2020

Inland Rivers Network wrote to Dubbo’s Daily Liberal newspaper about a proposed re regulating weir between Narromine and Warren on the Wambuul Macquarie River. The letter was in response to a piece submitted by outgoing WaterNSW CEO David Harris published by the paper.

Far from assuring the public that environmental concerns will be addressed during the planning process, WaterNSW raised more questions than they answered.

Daily Liberal WaterNSW letter 1/5/2020

Support the campaign by signing the petition to Stop the Macquarie River re regulating weir

Lower Darling flows reach isolated NSW town of Pooncarie….

ABC Mildura, 11th April 2020

By Leonie Thorne, Cherie von Hörchner and Christopher Testa

The first flows down the Lower Darling in 18 months are fast approaching the river’s junction with the Murray, and will soon join the river end to end for the first time in more than a year.

It had brought a sense of relief to communities that were also in their second year of drought.

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-04-11/lower-darling-flows-hit-pooncarie-first-time-in-18-months/12137306