NSW government is on notice, literally, over one of the most contentious elements in the Murray Darling Basin.
Labor’s Primary Industry spokesman Mick Veitch lobbed a curly question at Water Minister Niall Blair during question time on Tuesday, which the Mr Blair took on notice. He now has 35 days to respond.
His answer will address a core concern of Far Western NSW residents, many of whom oppose NSW’s plan to build a $500 million water supply pipeline to pump from the Murray River near Wentworth into Broken Hill.
“Will he (Mr Blair) confirm whether the board of Water NSW has advised him that construction would not be in its financial interest and that it would undertake construction only if forced to do so by a ministerial direction?,” Mr Veitch asked.
Mr Blair said he would take the question on notice, because it went to the actions of Water NSW and not just himself.
Section 20P of the State Owned Corporations Act a empowers Minister, with sign off from the Treasurer, to direct the action of a publicly owned corporation in their portfolio.
The minister must be satisfied exceptional circumstances make the direction necessary in order to serve the public interest.
NSW government has committed itself, and Water NSW, to pay a contractor to build and operate a 270 kilometre pipeline following the Silver City Highway by the end of 2018. It will pump up to 37 megalitres a day. The town’s population of 18,000 needs about 6 gigalitres a year.
The pipeline would not only secure drinking water, which is currently sourced from the Menindee Lakes system (managed by both State and Commonwealth), it could stop the Murray Darling Basin Authority conducting another round of unpopular water buybacks.
Reducing Broken Hill’s reliance on inflows to the lakes enables NSW to re-engineer the lake system to push water through more quickly and reduce evaporation.
The water saved could contribute to a program in the Basin Plan that allows states to swap buybacks for the water efficiencies achieved through new infrastructure, such as engineering works.
Mr Blair has confirmed his orders provide sufficient direction for Water NSW to deliver the pipeline. Water NSW is conducting a tender for construction.
All that’s left before the trucks start rolling is for a successful candidate to be selected.
Speaking out in opposition to the pipeline are local groups including Broken Hill Darling River Action, Menindee Community Water, Menindee Regional Tourist Association, Lower Darling Pastoralist Group, the Australian Floodplain Association and Barkandji Elder William Brian Bates.
They want to see details of the business case, which is being shopped around to companies in the tender process.
Mr Blair has maintained the business case would not be released until a contract was awarded, to maintain competition.
His opponents argue the business case would reveal if there rate hikes are likely for Broken Hill, to cover ongoing operation of the pipeline system.
It could also contain operational details, which may shed light on how flows below Menindee Lakes and along the Lower Darling will be managed.
Enthusiastic support for the pipeline from Cotton Australia’s and other irrigators has raised the hackles of downstream communities. They fear the pipeline was predicated on reducing Broken Hill’s reliance on water from the Darling River, which some argue could enable increased extraction upstream.
Confirmation from Water NSW that the pipeline is not commercial would only increase their suspicions.
Mr Blair rejected Labor’s accusation of a flawed, secretive process, and emphasised community benefits.
The pipeline is expected to generate up to 240 jobs and an emphasis on local employment, and also to source local steel and utilise the government’s Skills Legacy Training program.
“The only thing that is a secret is why, after having avoided the issue on three occasions when they were in Government, Labor continues to oppose a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to secure Broken Hill’s water supply into the future. Why do they oppose the local jobs it will generate?,” Mr Blair said.
Mr Veitch said the community must be offered an opportunity to comment on the business case.
“The public have a right to know whether the Board of Water NSW told the minister that the pipeline was not in their best interests,” Mr Veitch said.
“The people of Broken Hill, the lower Darling and the Murray have been dudded by this Minister and the Government.”