UNLIKE water in the lower Darling River, the Menindee pipeline is an issue which won’t dry up.
At least not until the government fills the information void and tells us how the $500 million proposal will impact the Menindee Lakes and downstream on the Lower Darling River.
NSW government plans to build a 300 kilometre pipeline by 2018 to pump up to 37 gigalitres from the Murray River near Wentworth into Broken Hill. The town needs about 6 gigalitres a year.
But despite public outcry against the project, government is tight lipped on the pipeline’s impact to river flows. The information void on changes to river management is sparking suspicions in the community.
Broken Hill residents and graziers downstream say the pipeline is designed to favour cotton irrigators upstream in North West NSW.
They fear the pipeline’s reliable town supply will prompt cuts to inflows to their Menindee lakes playground and the river downstream will be cut.
Lower Darling sheep producer Katherine McBride, whose family owns Tolarno Station, said the project threatens farmers livelihoods.
“Graziers are concerned the pipeline would mean the government can stop supplying Menindee Lakes and the Lower Darling. That would sound a death knell for all of us here,” Mrs McBride said.
“An extended period of no flow creates stagnant pools and completely dries out the river, which would put the lives of the 70 families and quarter of a million sheep here on the line.”
Broken Hill Council last week voted for a Royal Commission into allegations of water theft and “gaming” of water sharing regulations in the Barwon River, and for work to cease on the pipeline until it had viewed detailed advice to prove the project stacks up.
Citing commercial in-confidence, the Department and Regional Water Minister Niall Blair have refused to detail how the pipeline will impact water levels in the Menindee Lakes, nor how flows down the Lower Darling will be impacted.
Government says the pipeline will secure town drinking supply in a drought-prone region. Broken Hill nearly lost its drinking supply in 2016, when the Darling River was dried up for 6 months.
But the pipeline is not just drinking water. It’s a crucial part of the Murray Darling Basin Plan, letting NSW government write off a portion of its water recovery against infrastructure investment.
It’s submitted to the Murray Darling Basin Authority as a contributor to the the Sustainable Diversion Limit adjustment mechanism, a key process in the Basin Plan where states can reduce the amount of irrigation water recovery by building in-stream efficiencies and make more water available to the environment.
The Menindee Lakes, which can fill with up to 2000GL in flood, loses more than 400GL to evaporation in an average year.
The pipeline would cut Menindee Lakes role as a critical drinking storage, enable faster cycling of water along the Darling River and downstream along the Lower Darling.
Reducing the time water sits in the lake cuts evaporation losses and, through the SDL adjustment mechanism, reduces the amount of water to be recovered from irrigators under the Basin Plan.
Mr Blair said the pipeline process is designed to get the best deal for the people of NSW.
“It would not make sense for me to release a business case openly, that would mean we lose that competition in the tender process,” he said.
“I'm a bit confused people would want us to release a business case during a competitive tender process. We don't do it in any type of infrastructure, and I don't think that too may in the private sector would want to release such information when they're trying the best deal.”
When questioned on how the pipeline would impact Lower Darling flows, NSW Water said it would not release details due to commercial concerns.
“Due to the current River Murray to Broken Hill Pipeline tender process, it would commercially disadvantage NSW taxpayers to release the details of the Broken Hill Long-Term Business Case,” a spokesman said.
“The River Murray pipeline solution was selected following an extensive assessment by experts of 19 possible project options. The preferred project provides the greatest confidence in meeting the specific quality, security and supply criteria in a sustainable and cost-effective way over decades to come. It best meets the strict social, economic and environmental criteria set to evaluate the project.”