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.”
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.”
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.
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.
Two prominent New South Wales irrigators have been found guilty of illegally taking water for use on their farm near Brewarrina.
Irrigators Peter and Jane Harris are found in breach of the approvals associated with the water licence for their farm
They will be sentenced on a date to be fixed; they have 28 days to appeal the decision
WaterNSW says the court action shows how serious it is about managing water resources
The NSW Land and Environment Court found that Peter and Jane Harris illegally extracted water for irrigation from the Barwon River during June 2016, contrary to a condition of their joint water use and supply approvals under the Water Management Act 2000.
The NSW Government Department of Industry Water has prepared a draft replacement plan and is seeking feedback from water users and other interested parties as part of the public exhibition phase.
The Water Sharing Plan is a regulatory plan under the Water Management Act 2000, and is in effect for a 10-year period. The purpose of the NSW Great Artesian Basin Water Sharing Plan is to set the rules that determine how water is to be shared between the environment and water users.
This Plan applies to the groundwater sources of the Great Artesian Basin (GAB). These groundwater resources are referred to as the:
The New South Wales government has given the green light to irrigation farmers in the north-west of the state to harvest the recent rainfall, pleasing some but causing anger in towns such as Menindee and Wilcannia and on the lower Darling where the river has not flowed for a year.
The lifting of the embargo for three days will be welcomed particularly by cotton farmers who have lobbied the NSW water minister, Melinda Pavey, warning that unless they are able to harvest the water their infrastructure will be damaged.
The problems of water mismanagement go back a long way, but one thing is sure, building dams then praying for rain is not a rational solution. According to Kamilaroi water scientist, Bradley Moggridge, Indigenous knowledge-holders should be “front and centre” in decision making around water.
The benefits of the state government’s $1 billion dam-building plan will likely be limited by existing rules that cap the amount of water than can be taken from catchments within the Murray-Darling Basin.
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority – the body responsible for ensuring planning decisions made in the interests of the overall basin – said the proposed upgrade of the Wyangala Dam and the new Dungowan Dam would need to operate within the state’s existing water entitlement rules.
“New or expanded dams don’t create water, but rather intercept and store large volumes of water which can then be managed as regulated releases,” Phillip Glyde, the authority’s chief executive, told the Herald.
“The MDBA is required to ensure that state governments are using no more than the long-term annual average limit of water that can be taken from individual catchments within the Basin,” he said.