Sophie Baldwin, Southern Riverina Irrigators
The recent disallowance of Water Minister, Melinda Pavey’s floodplain harvesting regulations has been welcomed by Southern Riverina Irrigators and Southern Connected Basin Communities.
While we support licensing and metering of a process that has been allowed to grow unchecked for 27 years, the regulations in their current form did little to protect southern basin communities – communities already hit hard by the implementation of the Basin Plan and poor water policy.
You only have to take a look around empty shop fronts, count the declining number of kids in our schools or see the ‘for sale’ signs on once productive dairy farms to realise something has dramatically changed.
NSW Murray General Security allocation reliability has reduced from 84 percent to 52 percent over the last two decades and yet Pavey’s regulations supported licensing of 390GL plus a 500 percent carryover in any given year, with no mention of an end of system flow target for the Darling River – $4 billion in compensable licenses gifted to a small select group of irrigators in the north.
Some of you might be wondering how a process occurring in the north can possibly impact on water security and allocations here in the south, and propaganda will tell you it doesn’t. The truth, however, tells a different story.
Floodplain Harvesting (FPH) occurs when water flowing across the floodplain is captured and stored in dams for later use. It is worth noting FPH doesn’t only happen in large flood events and it is the continual siphoning of water that is impacting baseline flows.
Northern on-farm storages have increased from 574GL in 1994 to 1395GL in 2020. Water that naturally once found its way into the Menindee Lake system and down the Darling River is now held back in 10,000ML storage dams.
This is not climate change as we would be led to believe, as average rainfall data has reduced by only five percent in the last 20 years when compared to the previous 105-year average – nowhere near enough to stop the Darling from flowing.
What has actually stopped the river flowing is the insatiable greed of FPH. Traditionally, the Darling River contributes around 39 percent or 721,000ML of water to South Australia’s annual water entitlement of 1850GL as mandated under the Murray-Darling Agreement.
If there is no water in the Darling, the 721,000ML shortfall is taken from the NSW and Victorian productive pool. To deliver this water, the majority must go over bank through the Barmah Forest and increasing conveyance loss as Hume Dam is further away than Menindee Lakes.
This process is unsustainable and would permanently remove 721,000ML from the Southern Basin; water that would otherwise produce two billion litres of milk, 10 million tonnes of tomatoes or 1.4 million tonnes of wheat in the food bowl of Australia.
There are no FPH licenses currently issued in NSW, and the process is illegal without a license and a meter, according to the Water Management Act 2012 which superseded the 1912 Water Act when it came into law.
The yet to be licensed Gwydir Valley 2002 Water Sharing Plan clearly states ‘floodplain harvesting works and water extractions also clearly fall into those activities that the Water Management Act 2000 requires to be only undertaken by way of a licence.’
It goes on to further say, ‘harvesting of water from floodplains reduces the amount of water reaching or returning to rivers. This decreases the amount of water available to meet downstream river health, wetland and floodplain needs and the water supply entitlements of other users.’
Perhaps lobby groups including the Northern NSWIC who maintain the disallowance ‘means continued uncontrolled and unlimited floodplain harvesting that is not subject to rules or metering obligations’ should revisit their legal opinion and read the WSP which clearly states different.
Southern Riverina Irrigators will continue to work hard to return lost water back to where it rightfully belongs – to licensed and metered irrigators in the south.
Our community, industry and environment depend upon it.
This article appeared in The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper, 20 May 2021.