When the major rivers of the Northern Murray-Darling Basin flow onto their lower floodplains they break up into thousands of smaller rivers, creeks, cowals, warrambools, flood runners and billabongs. One of these is the designated river. The floodplains of the Northern Basin make up a vast interconnected network of these streams. Floodplain water harvesting is the take of water from these floodplains.
Despite it being a large proportion of water taken for irrigation in the NSW part of the Northern Murray-Darling Basin it has never been regulated, measured or reported. The NSW government intends to license and regulate floodplain water harvesting by July 2021. Extraction will be accounted for under a water access licence, basic landholder right or licence exemption, ensuring that it is consistent with the Water Management Act 2000.
The amount of water taken by floodplain water harvesting will be measured and the volume distributed, after it is licensed. Owners of floodplain water harvesting licences will be able to be compensated for these new licences, should they be reduced in future.
Floodplain water harvesting has never been licensed, measured or monitored in NSW. On the 24th of March 2020, Helen Dalton, the NSW Member for Murray, asked Melinda Pavey, the Minister for Water, Property and Housing, in the NSW
What has been the volume of water extracted through floodplain harvesting in each financial year between 1993-94 and 2018-19?
The Minister replied: “There is currently very limited data on the volume of water that has been extracted through floodplain harvesting in New South Wales because such volumes have not been required to be reported by landholders.”
At a public meeting in Dubbo on 16th March 2018 an officer of the NSW water department acknowledged that the volume of water taken by floodplain water harvesting had been: “…grossly underestimated, …there is currently no monitoring of floodplain harvesting diversions.”
• Provides a background and summary of the NSW floodplain water harvesting policy and its implementation,
• Reviews research and reports related to floodplain water harvesting,
• Provides a map of on-farm storages on the floodplains of the NSW part of the Northern Murray-Darling Basin and the capacity of those storages.
In relation to water infrastructure spend, the Commission found that decisions “reflect a suite of weaknesses in decision making by governments” in the following ways:
Project selection processes do not always identify a clear issue, or consider the full suite
of options (including non-infrastructure) to address that issue
Business cases are not long-term or comprehensive, and assumptions are not always
rigorous or transparent
Decision-making processes lack transparency.
The Commission used the example of the fast-racked Dungown Dam project near Tamworth as an example – a project currently under the scrutiny of a NSW Upper House Inquiry.
Flawed decision making for Dungowan Dam (page 171)
“… the proposed dam is a costly way to protect general security licences, relative to the value of the water. The dam is estimated to provide an additional 6 GL of water (annual average) which has a current market value of only $11 million. By comparison, if the additional water was issued as entitlements to general security irrigators at full cost, it would
be valued at more than $60 000/ML”
“Moreover, the prospect of ‘new’ water is illusory. Because the proposed project is within a fully-allocated water system, it will result in an implicit (and expensive) transfer of water. Any infrastructure that improves reliability for one user will affect water availability for others.”
“The PC noted what it described as the “flawed” planning process for the Dungowan Dam near the northern inland NSW city of Tamworth. The project, initially priced at $150 million, is now slated to cost the federal and NSW governments $484 million for water the commission estimates is worth just $10 million a year.”
“… the commission has now declared the project is based on “flawed decision-making”. It highlighted the prospect of ‘new’ water is “illusory”, and because the project is already in a fully-allocated water system, it will lead to an expensive transfer of water. “Any infrastructure that improves reliability for one user will affect water availability for others,” the report read.”
“It found the cost-benefit ratio was based on ‘optimistic assumptions’ like the willingness of the locals to pay for fewer water restrictions. The original analysis ignored no-build options like purchasing general security entitlements, which would likely come at just two per cent of the Dungowan Dam construction cost. And, the scope of the project was “narrowly” defined, focused only on long-term water supply, rather than ensuring water security in extreme droughts.”
“If the extra water was offered to farmers, it would be worth about $60,000 a megalitre compared to relative current prices of $1341 a megalitre. “Irrigators are unlikely to be willing to pay for the additional water, highlighting the poor viability of the project,” it found.”
The Mole River Protection Alliance wishes to invite you and your friends to join us for an INFORMATION FUN DAY on Sunday 24th January 2021. See the Invitation for details!
Parliamentarians told to drop Mole Dam idea
The Mole River dam should be removed from the NSW list of Critical State Significant Infrastructure. This was the opening recommendation of members of the Mole River Protection Alliance who were invited to give evidence to the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into the rationale for proposed new dams. The project west of Tenterfield is listed under the NSW Water Supply (Critical Needs) Act.
Mr Bruce Norris explained that the dam will not meet the needs of any of the localities listed in the Act as having critical needs. “The closest is Walgett where the weir has been raised this year meeting that need” he said. “The principal purpose of the Mole River dam appears to be improving irrigation security. “However, many irrigators along the Mole and Dumaresq believe that the dam will make their enterprises less viable.”
$24 million is currently being spent on a final business case although a recent feasibility study showed this dam would be uneconomic. Mr Norris said “People along the Mole and Dumaresq Rivers below the dam site have been increasingly frustrated by WaterNSW’s failure to meet with them, discuss options for water management or to provide useful answers to questions. “By pressing ahead in this way with a business case for a dam recently considered uneconomic, when these affected people are still in drought and struggling to recover from extreme fires, the government shows a lack of empathy.”
Convenor of the Mole River Protection Alliance, Ms Kate Boyd, spoke about water planning and assessment processes.
“The draft Regional Water Strategy for the Border Rivers was released but no meeting was held near Tenterfield, Bonshaw or Collarenebri to discuss it. It includes 50 options for changing water management. Most are good options. Building this dam is not an option.”
Completing the business case is included as a commitment in the draft Strategy which is open for public comment until 13 December.
Ms Boyd said “The general public, particularly people along the Barwon Darling and everyone in the Border Rivers, should be involved in deciding what objectives they want achieved.” She wants the NSW Government to involve the public in choosing objectives now, instead of rushing ahead with a business case for a dam. “This is a necessary input to any business case.”
Ms Boyd summarised a few of the unknowns regarding the Government’s process of developing a business case for damming the Mole River.
• Will the business case for this dam consider as an alternative to the dam the implementation of all the good options [in the draft Regional Water Strategy]?
• Precisely how is the 24 million dollars of taxes being expended?
• Will scenarios to be trialed in models of use of the dam water be discussed with the community [to make sure it is a realistic business case – not just released after it is all finalised]?
• Environmental impacts within the dam footprint are being assessed. Are impacts down stream being assessed – on ground water intake? aquatic ecosystems? wetland such as Boobera Lagoon? or on people along the Barwon Darling?
Bruce Norris concluded the presentation to the Parliamentary Committee, saying “As a directly affected land holder, the rational for this dam is lost on me. The inability to input our view into the development process is frustrating and emotionally draining. Any of the proposed benefits seem to be negated by the losses likely to be incurred financially by
those businesses within the Mole and Dumaresq river systems.
He requested “that all information gathered, and modelling undertaken be publicly released, peer reviewed and discussed with the community as part of the process of developing the business case unless the whole idea is dropped.”
Mr Norris and Ms Boyd then answered questions on impacts of the dam and better ways to enable communities to cope with limited water availability.
Phone (02) 6737 5573
Bruce and Helen Norris own “Ringtree” – one of two properties where homes as well as
good land are to be inundated.
Phone 0429 724 026
Convenor of Mole River Protection Alliance – a group of local and broader community interests
formed to examine the dam proposal.
For more details see Mole River Protection Alliance submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry
MEDIA RELEASE Mole River Dam is a bad idea
Tuesday 20 October 2020
The impacts of the proposed Mole River Dam will be far greater than any expected benefits according to the Mole River Protection Alliance, a group of local and broader community interests formed to examine the dam proposal.
‘The Mole River Dam is not beneficial investment of public money,’ said Bev Smiles, President of Inland Rivers Network.
‘Dams have a major impact on river health both upstream and downstream, affecting native fish populations, habitats and natural flows. Mole River is one of the healthiest rivers in the MurrayDarling Basin.’
‘Even after the drought, the river supports Murray Cod and other fish threatened by river regulation. Natural flows from Mole River are very important. High flows and floods top up groundwater for later use, fill wetlands or meet the needs of fish and people down the Barwon and Darling. Some of the normal flow and higher flows are already extracted for irrigation along the Mole, Dumaresq or near Goondiwindi, and the remaining flows are essential for ecosystems, towns and stock and domestic users.’
The allocation of $24m of public funds to develop a business case and environmental assessment for a Mole River Dam is not about more water security for Tenterfield nor water for industries on the tablelands. The dam would be 400 metres lower than Tenterfield. There will be no pipeline to pump water up.
‘This public money would be better invested in improved services for Tenterfield that provide long term jobs and more economic stimulus, such as improved health services, a new youth centre, better internet connections and mobile coverage, and industry innovation,’ said impacted landowner, Bruce Norris.
The proposed dam will flood out over 800 ha of productive farm land. ‘We have farmed this country for four generations, said Rob Caldwell. ‘It is good agricultural land that should be protected, not lost under a dam.’
‘While there may be benefits to some downstream water users, this is not clear, and there has been no information about changes to water licences or other legal aspects of the proposal.’
‘There will be significant impacts on the natural environment with a permanent change to the river flow and ramifications for the Murray-Darling Basin,’ said Sarah Caldwell, downstream at Mole Station Native Nursery.
‘Most of the environmental impacts of this dam cannot be offset in any meaningful way. The value of our natural systems should be appreciated.’
The Mole River Protection Alliance considers that community consultation about the proposed dam has been very poor.
‘Previous economic studies for a dam on Mole River have shown the project to be unviable. We believe that this hasn’t changed and look forward to learning more about the basis for the business case that WaterNSW is developing. It should not cost $24m to provide this,” said Bev Smiles.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.
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.
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.