NSW’s irrigation rules spark outcry

Murray Darling water in Four Corners controversy


National Issues
Looking east along the Darling River at Bourke.

Looking east along the Darling River at Bourke.

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NSW’s water policy is under fire, following reports that regulations to allow irrigators to harvest environmental flows from the Barwon-Darling river system are undermining the $13 billion Murray Darling Basin Plan.

ABC Four Corners reported water bought back from private water holders by the Commonwealth can be legally harvested by irrigators. More than $3b has been spent to date on entitlements to return water to the system for environmental health.

The report said that together Webster Limited and cotton farmer Peter Harris own about 70 per cent of all licenced water in Barwon-Darling.

The concerns boil down to changes in NSW’s Water Sharing Plan, that allowed irrigators to convert B and C class licences to A class – permitting them to extract river water with large, 24 inch pumps during low flows.

Low flow pumping had previously restricted to 6 inch pumps.

Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) chief executive Phillip Glyde said despite concerns over harvesting of environmental water, irrigators still had to comply with an overall cap on extraction.

"There is some concern as a result of rule changes more of the low flows have been harvested legally by irrigators so there is a concern that in low flow periods the irrigators are getting the benefit of that — over the long run, over the long run average that shouldn't matter," he said.

Four Corners cited internal documents where the MDBA board questioned the accuracy of the its own monitoring extraction in the Barwon Darling. The documents said the region was not thought to have exceeded its cap, but raised “reasonable doubts over the veracity of the model”.

NSW’s 2012 Water Sharing Plans surprised many people. The new regulations varied from draft regulations which had been the subject of consultation.

Former NSW Farmers president and columnist for The Land Mal Peters, said heavy low-flow pumping by upstream irrigators in the Barwon Darling risked drying the river before it reached downstream communities and the environment. Heavy pumping should limited to higher flows.

Speaking to Fairfax Agricultural Media, Mr Peters said he was “concerned there will be another water reform process.”

Mr Peters, who chaired the MDBA’s Northern Basin Review is said anger over poor regulation, and harvesting of environmental flows, could undermine public support and prompt calls for further water reform.

“The reason I did the Northern Basin review is I’ve been through the previous attempts at water reforms by the federal government. And I wanted to make sure the third one will be thorough enough, so there doesn't need to be a fourth.

“There will be public outcry because it hasn't delivered what it said it would deliver. And I think that's pretty bloody ordinary.”

Jon-Maree Baker, of irrigation representative body Namoi Water, said irrigator pumping rules were not the real concern, “it is about the Commonwealth purchasing the wrong water entitlements to achieve the specified environmental outcomes”.

“I think the commentators are generally uninformed around the broader context of water reform and I am very concerned that there is a negative perception that is created that is unjustified given the facts,” Ms Baker said.

“The rules of the Barwon darling increased in the mid-2000’s from 400 megalitres a day commence-to-pump, to 1250ML a day commence-to-pump threshold, protecting environmental flows.”

Downstream Barwon Darling communities have long viewed upstream cotton irrigation with suspicion, like Pooncarie grazier Denis Miller.

“There seems to be an element in government that’s hell-bent on sacrificing this side of river, from  Bourke down, for the cotton growers above,” he said in 2016.

Four Corners said MDBA board member George Warne emailed details of a board meeting to other board members, including Phillip Glyde, the MDBA chief executive, which stated that "water use behaviours that effectively mine the (environmental) flows that make it into the Barwon-Darling".

The Commonwealth Environment Water Office head David Papps told the MDBA that NSW government had "legally embodied" unsustainable irrigation and was "openly hostile" to the Basin Plan, Four Corners reported.

"Let me remind you of the previously strongly-held position put forward by senior NSW DPI (Water) officials ... that they would never introduce regulatory measures to protect environmental water,” Mr Papps said.

 Mark McKenzie NSW Irrigators chief executive said it is wrong to assume Barwon-Darling irrigators are pumping environmental water.

“There is a water sharing system in place, that governs very tightly the extraction limits, when you can and can't pump pump,” he said.

“A number of people downstream continue to want to blame irrigators at Bourke for running the river dry. 

“Well there one thing that ran the river dry - and that's drought across 2013, 2014 and 2015.”

Mr McKenzie said irrigators cannot pump more than they are licensed to pump, and, as far as he knew, they had never exceeded their cap.

 Mark McKenzie NSW Irrigators chief executive said it is wrong to assume Barwon-Darling irrigators are pumping environmental water.

“There is a water sharing system in place, that governs very tightly the extraction limits, when you can and can't pump pump,” he said.

“A number of people downstream continue to want to blame irrigators at Bourke for running the river dry. 

“Well there one thing that ran the river dry - and that's drought across 2013, 2014 and 2015.”

Mr McKenzie said irrigators cannot pump more than they are licensed to pump, and, as far as he knew, they had never exceeded their cap.

Greens Murray Darling Basin spokesperson Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said her party would refer the Basin Plan to a senate inquiry once parliament resumes, to investigate Four Corners’ allegations.

“South Australia, the environment and taxpayers are all being screwed while a misuse of water caps is being used to line the pockets of big irrigators upstream.”

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