Tuesday, March 28, 2023

What has gone wrong with water management?

Recent stories

Neil J Eagle AO, The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper

Hume Dam
Photo: MDBA

We now see communities and irrigators questioning why, when dams on the Murrumbidgee and Murray are now pre-releasing or spilling, the allocations remain so low – 30% NSW Murray and 52% Murrumbidgee.

The cause dates back to the early 1990s when the anti-irrigation element imbedded in our bureaucracy and, egged on by groups like the ‘Wentworth Group’, began proclaiming our rivers in the Murray-Darling Basin were over-allocated and in dire decline. This culminated in the sensible temporary cap on extractions whilst river health issues were evaluated and addressed, being made permanent by the Ministerial Council on the recommendation of the newly appointed NSW Labor Minister for Water, Kim Yeadon.

This led to progressive clawing back of water for the environment without consultation with those to be affected. And also, without realising that irrigation, apart from food security, production are a massive contribution to the economy, actually enhances and expands the environmental habitat for our birds and wildlife.

Listing a few of these changes:

  • The original sensible carryover provisions whereby when the storages pre-released or spilled, carryover water was progressively lost, has now changed to carryover being accumulated in the storages and thus taking up dam space. Even more stupidly, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH) can carryover water and keep accumulating it, even when environmental assets are being watered in a flood, and hence taking even more dam space. Furthermore, CEWH claims they are the same as other entitlement holders. This is not so – for in a flood situation the productive sector is debited with any water extracted during this flood.
  • The change, without consultation, from ‘off-allocation’ water when it cannot be captured in Lake Victoria to ‘supplementary’ water which is now debited to allocation which cannot exceed 100%. Previously, ‘off-allocation’ was just that – not debited to allocation.
  • In the early 1990s, a wide-ranging consultative group under the chair of the MDBC was established to devise a workable plan for the watering of those forests.  The diverse group consisted of representatives from forestry, environment, the timber industry, stock agisters, irrigators and the indigenous community. After three years of modelling, meetings and debate, the group arrived at a unanimous recommendation that 25GL from NSW, 25GL from Victoria on top of an Ovens flood flow would be all that was required for watering the forests. With regulators installed, the two sides would be watered alternatively.

The government, without consulting with the watering group, baulked at providing the necessary regulators and instead doubled the amount of water to 50GL from each state on top of an Ovens flood. Shortly after, the government, again without consultation, changed it again by decreeing 75GL from each state annually, and which can be carried over and accumulated up to 700,000ML. NSW irrigators are able to then borrow up to 350,000ML in dry years and pay it back when their allocation reaches 30% – as is happening now!

  • South Australia annual dilution flow of 300,000ML to maintain salinity levels at Morgan below 800 ECs. As the levels have been between one quarter and half of that level for over 30 years because of the very successful salinity interception schemes, irrigation layouts and technology advances, surely that dilution flow should only be provided on necessity – not as a permanent annual right?
  • Conveyance water, approximately 700,000ML from Hume to the SA border, is currently debited to the NSW and Victorian productive sector prior to their allocation share. This, I believe, is rightly environmental water to run the river. However, even if contested, at least it should be a shared responsibility between CEWH and the irrigation sector.

That report in 2004 vindicated the evidence of scientists, Lee Benson and Jennifer Marahosy, who completely dismantled the false information peddled by the ‘Wentworth Group’ of dead and dying rivers. Professor Peter Cullen, the lead proponent of the ‘Wentworth Group’, admitted in a television interview that, “Well, yes, the rivers are in quite good health.”

However, the Coalition Government, seeking to cement votes in South Australia, ignored that report, pretended that the rainfall deficit in the Millenium Drought was river decline attributable to the myth of over-allocation, drafted the 2007 Water Act and resultant Basin Plan. They also totally ignored Professor Peter Gell’s 2005 and 2007 peer-reviewed reports that the Lower Lakes were historically estuarine.

Instead, they used the SA Government and three complicit scientists’ fake report (not peer-reviewed) of the Lakes being fresh water historically. That FALSE report became the basis of the major water recovery targets under the Basin Plan. Three million megalitres to be removed from production, which is equivalent approximately to the capacity of Hume Dam. That equates to a loss at farm gate of at least $5 billion annually and with the acknowledged multiplier of 4 to 1 $20 billion to the Australian economy. These losses are massive and are equivalent to a train wreck to the Basin’s irrigation industries and dependent communities, as well as Australia nationally. And it is all based on false science which was politically driven by vote chasing to ostensibly save an environment that didn’t need saving in the first place!

In fact, this plan is actually inflicting significant damage to our rivers and environment.

  • A proper involvement of Northern and Southern community and irrigator interests into flood plain harvesting in the north to arrive at equity and balance so that the Menindee Lakes and Lower Darling are accommodated and a proper contribution to South Australian entitlement (currently virtually solely borne by Vic/NSW Murray and Murrumbidgee).
  • A revisiting of the 3-State Water Sharing Agreement. Prior to Dartmouth Dam, the shares were NSW 5/13, VIC 5/13, SA 3/13. Post-Dartmouth Dam (needed SA to agree to Dartmouth and to drop the Chowilla proposal), the negotiation was supposedly equal shares, BUT the SA share was to be provided prior to the upper states sharing the remainder. So, in effect, the shares are NEVER equal in the years that matter (i.e., dry or drought years). For example, in the Millenium Drought and recent three-year dry, SA received its entitlement whilst NSW general security irrigators had years between 0% and 10% allocation. I suggest that SA’s critical human needs, stock and domestic, and horticulture be treated the same as NSW, but all other be treated as NSW general security allocation.

It must be noted that these incremental adverse government decisions have eroded NSW general security allocation reliability from approximately 80% to now below 50%. The purpose of irrigation is to enhance production and its reliability so that farms and dependent communities will prosper, provide food security, and grow the Australian economy. The current policies mean this is not possible.

Our current water trading policies are not transparent, are subject to rorting and should never have been allowed to be fluid to the extent of eroding the viability of existing developments to foster new schemes and areas without the building of new storage dams and capacity. Lastly, our land and water should not be able to be owned by overseas interests. Note – Canada and China have policies limiting overseas ownership. We should apply the same criteria.

As I have stated before, mandatory reading for anybody dealing with water matters in Australia should be:

  • The late Professor John Briscoe, brought to Australia to critique the guide to the Basin Plan, produced a report wherein he exposed the flaws in the 2007 Water Act and resultant Basin Plan as being ‘not’ balanced and that Australia, previously the world leader in arid zone water management, had lost its way and must re-draft the act and develop a new plan.
  • Peter Millington’s submission (no. 108, 28 Nov 2016) to the House Standing Committee Inquiry into the impacts of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. (Mr Millington was director-general, NSW Dept of Water Resources 1987-1995; commissioner, MDBC 1987-1996; World Bank consultant on river basin/water resource management; and Asian Development Bank consultant post 1996.) No doubt there will be many in the water agencies that will disagree with these comments. But the sad point is that there has been virtually no consultation with regional water communities about the Basin Plan and the underlying policies upon which the plan is based.

 So, I call on the MDBA and state water agencies to ‘lift their game’ and agree to hold, very soon, a series of workshops at which all these issues can be debated and better understood by all parties. The adverse impacts of present policies on the national economy, and on the socio-economic health of regional communities is of ‘train wreck’ proportions – it is unimaginable how it has been ignored by relevant agencies.  So, over to you, MDBA and state agencies, we await advice as to dates of regional consultations.

The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper 2 September 2021

Neil J Eagle AO
20 August 2021

This article appeared in The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper, 2 September 2021.
Ed: Reference links added by ARR.News


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