Flush with a claim to success in a bid to push federal parliament overturn Murray Darling Basin Plan amendments to reduce irrigation cutbacks by 70 gigalitres, opponents of the $467 million Broken Hill pipeline say their will to block the controversial project cannot be doubted.
Far Western NSW residents congregated at the junction of the Murray and Darling rivers yesterday.
On an unseasonably mild day there was a welter of heated talk from speakers protesting against the domestic water supply pipeline NSW government is building between Wentworth and Broken Hill.
“The Menindee Lakes and Lower Darling River need the full Basin Plan to survive,” said protest organiser Rob McBride, who runs Tolarno Station 50 kilometres south of Menindee.
Farmers, representatives of the local indigenous community, Broken Hill and Wentworth residents and local government representatives support the campaign.
“The vote to protect 70GL is the biggest victory yet in the history of the Darling,” Mr McBride said.
WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE?
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 to Broken Hill. The town’s population of 18,000 needs about 6000ML, or 6GL, a year.
The pipeline would not only secure town water, which is currently sourced from the Menindee Lakes system.
While NSW government insists the pipeline is a standalone drinking supply project, there can be no doubt that reducing Broken Hill’s reliance on inflows to the lakes frees the government’s hand to re-engineer the lake system.
NSW plans to reconfigured the lakes to push water in-and-out faster and store it when necessary in deeper reservoirs, to reduce evaporation, which is estimated at 400GL to 600GL a year.
The water savings would contribute to the water recovery goals of the Murray Darling Basin Plan, which allows states to swap buybacks of irrigation entitlement for the water efficiencies achieved through new infrastructure.
Kevin Ingram, Aston Station via Pooncarie, travelled downstream to attend.
He said the river had flowed less following changes to upstream regulations.
“The Darling hadn’t been dry since 1944 until around 2000, and since then we have had four dry rivers,” Mr Ingram said.
He is a third generation farmer in the district, where he joins between 3000 to 4000 Merino ewes a year.
Mr Ingram said politics had tilted the balance of state regulations too far toward high value crops at the expense of river health and industries such as grazing, which runs a cumulative 12,000 breeding ewes between Menindee and Wentworth.
“This pipeline is a government decision. We need to let the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) control the river. Wipe the states out of it, and apply the same rules across the whole system,” he said.
Graziers and horticulturists say the pipeline and planned changes at Menindee Lakes will deliver dual negative impacts.
One is that reduced reliance on Menindee Lakes for drinking supply will enable government to allocate more water to upstream cotton production.
The other concern is that Menindee Lakes will be reconfigured to deliver short, sharp bursts of high flows - which reduces NSW’s overall water consumption and fulfils the state’s Basin Plan targets.
They argue the environment and water users will suffer from reduced water quality and availability.
Sending short, intense pulses down the river leaves dry gaps where water is stranded in pools, where it becomes salty and deoxygenated.
Stone fruit grower Graeme Jarrett manages the Connargee property at Menindee, which was slated to expand to 160 hectares of production on the back of 10 years and $2.5 million worth of development.
He said water regulation changes in 2012 had reduced the reliability and availability of irrigation from Menindee Lakes and the property’s production area had fallen from 30ha to 15ha.
“We’re on a see saw of water availability now,” Mr Jarrett said.
“Menindee Lakes were drained by the MDBA before Christmas and we’ll run out shortly.
“I believe there has been a plan to drain the lakes just to shut us down out here.
“There used to be a thriving table grapes industry and other fruit growers. But 2500ha of horticulture has gone.”
Mr Jarrett said irrigators in his region had been fitted with telemetric metering through a state government scheme and criticised the fact the same program was not completed upstream in the Barwon Darling catchment.
Mr Jarrett said three was less water in Menindee Lakes and the Lower Darling, which are powerhouses of native fish breeding for the entire system spawning fish that spread the length of the system, the environment had suffered.
“I grew up here and have been in the area all my life, it’s very sad to see what’s happened.”
Mr Jarrett and Ingram said while evaporation was a negative outcomes from using Menindee Lakes as a storage, it also produced rain in the local region.
“Evaporation leads to precipitation, it’s basin science,” Mr Jarrett said.
MONEY AND JOBS
Construction of the pipeline is expected to cost $467 million a contractor will run the pipeline for 20 years at an overall cost of $107m.
The project workforce is expected to peak at 500, injecting $50m into the Wentworth and Broken Hill economies and generating more than 150 local jobs. Construction will begin next year.
NSW Water Minister has acknowledged that poor communication had contributed to negative perceptions of the project.
But he said the MDBA had endorsed the changes and argued reduced evaporation from Menindee, and the ensuing management changes, would improve downstream flows.
“There will be more water for longer, with better flow in the river as a result of decoupling Broken Hill’s supply from Menindee Lakes,” Mr Blair said.