River reform snags to swamp upwater progress

Murray Darling Basin Plan water recovery challenges in upwater process


National Issues
Broken Hill and Lower Darling River locals (pictured) are readying for a fight over water sharing in NSW, and elements of the Basin Plan. Photo Kate Geraghty.

Broken Hill and Lower Darling River locals (pictured) are readying for a fight over water sharing in NSW, and elements of the Basin Plan. Photo Kate Geraghty.

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Local issues to the fore as further water recovery is considered

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A controversial report endorsing full recovery of 450 gigaltires from Queensland, NSW and South Australia will not guarantee the path to completion of the Murray Darling Basin Plan, even if the political roadblocks between South Australia and other Basin states is removed in the Senate.

On January 19 consultant Ernst and Young released advice that a 450Gl bucket to recovered, known as “upwater”, could be secured from a mix of on-farm recovery and urban as well as irrigation infrastructure upgrades, with the requisite neutral or positive socio-economic impacts.

Federal Water Minister David Littleproud welcomed the news and committed to pursue the upwater, as he prepared to begin the parliamentary year with crucial decisions to lift the water recovery burden on irrigators under consideration in the Senate, which SA’s Labor government is lobbying to block.

EY’s findings spurred hope in some that the final piece of the puzzle could be locked into place, but local issues across the Basin are set to slow the flow.

Darling River Action Group is leading a popular push from Broken Hill to reduce upstream irrigation and increase flow into the Menindee Lakes system and Lower Darling River.

Chairman Mark Hutton said the upwater would deliver little benefit to his stretch of river below Bourke, under NSW’s current water sharing regime, which he said allows small to medium flows to be consumed upstream, leaving the Lower Darling in a “that is 90 per cent bust, 10pc boom”.

“We’ll never give up fighting. We’re in it for the long haul,” Mr Hutton said.

“Over the past 18 years there have been 60pc less flows in the Lower Darling from Wilcannia down.”

NSW’s contribution to the Basin Plan includes building a $500 million pipeline from Wentworth to pipe Murray River water for Broken Hill’s drinking supply and reduce reliance on Menindee Lakes, curtailing storage and with it, evaporation, as well as support for the Northern Basin Review that recommends 70GL be cut from the original recovery target.

“We are fighting the Northern Basin Review, working with the Environmental Defenders Office. If that cut makes it through the Senate, we will take NSW to court to overturn it,” Mr Hutton said.

Above the Lower Darling, in Mr Littleproud’s sprawling rural Queensland electorate Maranoa, people are wary about any further water recovery, according to Dalby farmer and AgForce Water spokesman Kim Bremner.

“I have grave concerns. St George and Dirranbandi have already lost 30pc of their water and a significant amount of employment,” Mr Bremner said.

“Irrigation is just struggling along at the moment and numbers in the schools have about halved over recent years.

“The upwater is supposed to have no economic impact, but less water always has an impact. It was unhelpful for (Mr Littleproud) to say it can be recovered.”

SA Central Irrigation Trust chief executive Gavin McMahon, who is also chairman of the National Irrigators Council, said the water recovery to date had been an “uncelebrated achievement” that had already delivered some positive impacts to his downstream state.

He said before projects to recover upwater were developed, the priority should be to secure deliver of the full 2750GL bucket of “downwater”, which is contingent on the states delivering water-saving projects to offset 605GL worth of direct recovery from irrigation.

“The EY report didn’t identify specific recovery outcomes. There are qualifications and caveats on virtually everything it said.”

Mr McMahon said another priority is constraints management - removing pinch points in the Southern Basin to allow high flows down the river and into SA, which in turn produces beneficial overbank flows for riparian ecosystems.

In the middle of it all, rice and dairy farmers are struggling with a range of economic factors and the prospects of further reductions to on-farm water availability appear daunting.

“Why would any Government proceed with this additional recovery when it clearly has negative social and economic impacts? Political expediency ahead of people is completely unacceptable,” said Ricegrowers Association president Jeremy Morton.

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