Community group takes legal action to enforce water laws because the Coalition government has not
The Inland Rivers Network is taking legal action to force Peter Harris, a big irrigator in the state’s northwest and a Nationals Party donor, to return more than five billion litres of water he took, allegedly illegally, from the Barwon-Darling River. 
“It should not fall to community groups to enforce our water laws, but the Berejiklian’s government’s inaction has left the Inland Rivers Network no option,” said Nature Conservation Council CEO Kate Smolski.
The Morrison Government is failing the Basin Plan by shifting money for the environment to the irrigation industry. A report released today by The Australia Institute has exposed that billions of dollars earmarked for the environment is now going to NSW irrigators for bridge upgrades and new fences.
The Federal Government has $1.48 billion to invest on the public’s behalf to return 450 billion litres (GL) of water to improve river health in the Murray-Darling Basin by 2024.
The projects listed for investment of public funds include fencing, upgrading 1,200 bridges on farms and cleaning out irrigation channels – all in NSW.
“Serious questions must be asked about how upgrading 1,200 bridges and building fences for their mates in NSW could return water to the rivers. The situation is absurd.” says Bev Smiles, President of the Inland Rivers Network.
To date the Morrison Government has spent $68 million on projects that have apparently returned just 2.1 GL of water to the Basin, meaning the water came at an outrageous cost.
Inland Rivers Network is calling on the Federal Government to immediately conduct a full audit of the program and make all of the findings public. Under the Coalition Government, secrecy has been a hallmark of the implementation of the Basin Plan.
Last year an independent review of the plan to return the 450 GL of water to the rivers through efficiency projects found that it was doomed to fail, triggering calls for the Morrison Government to resume open tender buy backs of water from willing sellers.
“This Government are blowing the last chance we have to protect the biggest river system in Australia. The most efficient and cost effective way to return water to rivers is to buy it from willing sellers, and we know there are plenty of willing sellers out there.
“The Morrison Government isn’t even pretending to honour the agreements made at the 2012 signing of the Murray Darling Basin Plan. Their disregard for the law, for the rivers of the Basin and the people who live here is staggering.” Says Ms Smiles.
The NSW Governments’ draft Namoi Regional Water Strategy includes a lot of potentially useful and sensible options for water security in the Namoi catchment as we face a drying, warming future. Inland Rivers Network is concerned that by presenting the controversial Dungowan dam proposal as a done deal, most of the good ideas could be filed away forever. “We have a once in a generation opportunity to invest in new technologies and reduce the demand on precious water supplies. “Yet the National Party are stubbornly clinging to an outdated notion that building dams somehow creates more water, when all they do is shift water from people in the lower catchment and damage the river in the process,” said Bev Smiles, President of Inland Rivers Network.
The Dungowan dam proposal was used as a case study showing flawed decision making by the Productivity Commission in their review of National Water Reform in February this year.1 “The promise that the expensive Dungowan dam could provide new water in a fully allocated system is an illusion. All this dam would do is deny the environment and water users downstream of their entitlements, and for those upstream send the price of water sky high.” Bev Smiles said. The review found the dam would provide water at a cost of over $60,000 a megalitre, while the current market price for one megalitre is $1,341. “Clearly the dam plan doesn’t make economic sense and the community deserves to see the business case before a funding decision is made,” said Ms Smiles Options in the strategy that Inland Rivers Network support include research into groundwater health, implementing the Native Fish Passage Strategy, and investment into purified recycled water treatments for major towns. Inland Rivers Network congratulates the NSW Government for their work alongside First Nations Groups, and supports options to create an Aboriginal River Ranger program and secure water for cultural sites. “We don’t want to see this opportunity for investment in positive outcomes lost because the Government is rusted on to last century thinking. Dams do not make water.” Media Contacts Bev Smiles 0428 817 282 firstname.lastname@example.org
The Business Case for the Macquarie River project is done and should be released immediately. The Business Cases for the other proposals must be released as soon as they are finalised.
On the Lachlan River people want answers:
“This project is a captain’s pick. The dam proponents have greatly exaggerated the benefits and the costs have been grossly underestimated. There is no coherent cost-benefit analysis.” said the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists’ spokesman, Jamie Pittock, a professor in the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University.
Costs estimates have soared – originally a $650 million cost, now estimates are as high as $2.1 billion dollars.
There are better options for reducing the demand for water in the Lachlan, like the upgrading of Jemalong Irrigation infrastructure. Will these options be considered in the business case?
Send a tweet to the Premier – @GladysB – Will you release the Wyangala dam business case? #Wyangala
On the Mole River residents are angry:
“People along the Mole and Dumaresq Rivers below the dam site have been increasingly frustrated by WaterNSW 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.” Says local Mr Bruce Norris.
Environmental impacts within the dam footprint are being assessed… But are impacts downstream being assessed – on ground water intake? Aquatic ecosystems? Wetland such as Boobera Lagoon? Or on people along the Barwon Darling?
Email the Premier and ask – Will you release the business case for the Mole River Dam? What is your Government trying to hide? #MoleRiverProtectionAlliance
On the Wambool-Macquarie River trust in NSW’s water management doesn’t exist:
The community have not forgotten how close we came to losing the river in the recent drought as a direct consequence of NSW mismanagement of water.
The proposed Gin Gin dam would give water agencies even more control over the river, and the means to sell even more water for extraction.
“We need to know what is in the business case. How much would this dam cost? Why are the public expected to foot the bill for a dam that will only benefit a few corporate and private interests?” says Mel Gray, convenor of Healthy Rivers Dubbo.
Less water in the river and a loss of habitat will hit struggling native fish populations hard. Will the financial impact of fewer fishers in the valley, and less water for downstream irrigators be assessed?
Tweet Dubbo’s local member @DugaldSaunders and ask – What is in the Macquarie River re-regulating storage business case? Show us the detail. #NoGinGinDam
In Tamworth residents want real water security:
Recently the Productivity Commission’s draft report on National Water Reform used the Dungown dam proposal as a case study for flawed decision making.
The dam is estimated to provide on average 6,000 megalitres of water a year, at a cost of more than $60,000 per megalitre. By comparison, the current market price of one megalitres is $1,341.
The report also pointed out the inescapable truth – that the water system is fully allocated, and any promise of ‘new water’ from this dam is an illusion.
Rather than spend $484 million on a dam, the same volume of water could be bought from entitlement owners for just $10 million dollars a year.
How can the business case for a dam proposal that the Productivity Commission chose to use as a case study for flawed decision making stand up to public scrutiny?
Email the Premier and ask – Does the business case for the Dungown dam proposal include options like using purified water in communities? Please release the business case! #NoDungowanDam
“Tusked Frogs and Northern Brown Bandicoots – both are amazing finds I would not have dreamt of” said Phil Spark who has been conducting wildlife surveys for decades. “That’s on top of Spotted-tail Quoll, Rakali, Catfish, Murray Cod and so many other species – it seems the Mole River is an ark of conservation for species that are declining or have already disappeared elsewhere.”
Mr Spark was one of three professional ecologists who spent a weekend surveying the site of a proposed dam 25 km west of Tenterfield near the NSW-Queensland border for the Mole River Protection Alliance.
He explained “This is the first place west of the Dividing Range where Tusked frogs have been found for over four decades. They used to be common in the New England Tablelands or North West Slopes but rapidly disappeared in the 1970s.”
Tusked Frogs were severely affected by a pandemic of chytrid fungus, like many other frog species around the world. The species survived in coastal regions but were feared extinct in this region where any remaining Tusked Frogs were declared an endangered population.
Mole Station owner, David Caldwell, showed the ecologists a dead Bandicoot he had found very close to the Mole River downstream from the dam site. “They were excited because bandicoots are very rare in this area. The Australian Museum advised us that there were no previous specimen-based records of this species from west of Tenterfield. The species is likely to be at the western edge of its range in this area which makes the Mole River population significant” Mr Caldwell said. “I’d not seen one before but my father remembers seeing them here long ago – it is lovely to know Bandicoots still live in our valley.”
“It was great to see a camera-trap photo of the Rakali, proving they had survived our extreme drought. Most people call them Water Rats because they live in rivers, although they are not much like rats. My grandfather told me people around here called them moles and this may be the origin of the Mole River’s name”.
NSW Fisheries surveys in early 2020 showed at least six fish species had survived the extreme drought in Mole River, including three species threatened by river regulation Murray Cod, Catfish and Purple-spotted Gudgeons.
This brief survey brought the number of fish species re-found to 8 and recorded 11 frog species, 3 kinds of turtle, 42 birds and 16 native mammal species.
Kate Boyd of the Mole River Protection Alliance says “This river valley is an ark in which so much wildlife has survived past land use changes, diseases and introduced predators. The forest on the riverbanks suffered a bit in the drought but it remained as a refuge with habitats these species need. Many thousands of bottlebrush shrubs overhanging the river channel flowered brilliantly last spring when everything was able to reproduce again.
“This is the ark in which these species have a chance of surviving climate change.”
WaterNSW proposes to build a dam that would inundate and permanently destroy about 13 km of the Mole River, plus the side creeks, River Oak forest, woodlands and productive grazing land.
“All of the Mole River downstream would be adversely impacted by greatly changed river flows if funds to build the dam are found.”
$24m of public funds are currently being spent trying to work out a final business case for the dam. Consultants have been paid to look for threatened species in the inundation site but their findings have not been made public. They may be used to calculate part of the money required to “offset” loss of threatened species – a cost to include in the business case along with construction costs and benefits – the dam is primarily to improve reliability for irrigated agriculture.
Kate Boyd says “Water NSW has not looked for threatened species on downstream properties although the impacts and “offset” cost calculations can’t be done properly without this. Mole River Protection Alliance may have to find volunteers to do its own survey of wildlife habitats downstream and indicate how big this hole in the business case could be.
“The business case may not be made public either, unless the Premier or Treasurer are persuaded to release it before considering expenditure of more funds.
“It is not possible to offset the destruction of this whole endangered population of Tusked Frogs by a dam. These frogs live in creeks, natural rivers and on sheltered riverbanks, not in drowned dead treetops or up hills. No amount of money can create another river with the right habitats for Tusked Frogs and threatened fish to thrive in.”
The Mole River Protection Alliance, of local people and wider community interests, believes careful promotion of the valley for its wonderful wildlife and other values would be a much better future.
Phil Spark 0427 642245
David Caldwell 02 6737 5429
Kate Boyd 0429724026 Kate can’t take calls at work 8am-5.15 Monday-Wednesday:
so please leave a text message then I will call you back
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.
Inland Rivers Network and Tamworth Water Security Alliance welcome the draft Productivity Commission Report recommendation that all town water supply options should be on the table with a rigorous, consistent and transparent assessment of costs and benefits.
The Productivity Commission draft findings into the review of the National Water Initiative, released on 11 February, includes a chapter on Urban Water Supply. Principles recommended in Advice 11.1 ‘Best Urban System Planning’ includes that: All supply options are considered and their relative merits subject to a rigorous, consistent and transparent assessment of costs and benefits. 1
“Tamworth Water Security Alliance (TWSA) has been calling for all water security options to be on the table and fully costed, with an understanding of who will manage the projects, who will benefit most and who will pay,’ said David McKinnon, TWSA representative.
‘It is pleasing to see that the community position is backed up by the Australian Productivity Commission.’
‘The NSW and Federal Governments have promised a considerable amount of public funding to build a new dam at Dungowan, that may not be the best solution to Tamworth’s water security problems. It may also prove to be economically unviable,’ said Bev Smiles, President of Inland Rivers Network.
‘The least the community can expect is that the business case for Dungowan Dam is made available to the public so there is assurance that a rigorous cost-benefits analysis is undertaken.’
‘The people who are paying for this new dam should have access to the business case,’ said Ms Smiles. ‘There are many costs including to the health of the Peel and Namoi Rivers, downstream water users, to native fish populations, platypus and other water dependent species.
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 NSW Government must show they are serious about managing the state’s precious water
resources by providing open public access to all water licence and water trading information.
The Inland Rivers Network submission to the public consultation that closed on 1 February
emphasised the need for a free public single source Water Register.
Like Western Australia, the NSW Water Register should include all details of water
entitlements; water allocations; meter readings; real time water account balance and all trading
activities, as well as any convictions from water theft.
The exposure of seriously poor water management by the ABC Four Corners program
‘Pumped’ in 2017, resulted in recommendations from the independent Matthews Report to
improve transparency around water ownership and trading.
“Public confidence in the State government’s approach to transparency has not improved with
the latest approach out for comment,” said Bev Smiles, President.
‘The proposal is basically business as usual with information spread across numerous
websites and a huge cost to gain access the Water Access Licence information.’
‘If other states can provide free public information from a single source, we have to ask what
is NSW hiding?’
‘The only way to avoid ongoing allegations of water theft and corruption is to be upfront about
who owns what, what they are extracting or trading and how the Government is regulating the
water industry and market,’ said Mel Gray, Healthy Rivers Dubbo
‘This Government has been sprung time after time favouring their big corporate mates at the
expense of everyone else. If they want us to trust them, this is their opportunity to come clean.’
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.