Irrigators and the State Government are at loggerheads over reforms to the Water Management Act, which industry says will reduce without compensation the value of water entitlements, which are a major financial asset for farm enterpises.
Regional Water Minister Niall Blair’s proposed legislation creates new powers under section 324 of the Act to enable the Minister to temporarily embargo pumping as environmental flows move down a river system.
Previously, the Minister could only issue cease-to-pump orders to protect critical human need - which was built into the value and conditions of existing water entitlements.
Environment water is a new factor created by the Murray Darling Basin Plan and it’s of most concern in the unregulated Northern Basin.
The Commonwealth Environment Water Holder (CEWH) has a portfolio of holdings it can release from dams on the Namoi and Gwydir Rivers to boost river health and give wetlands a drink.
But licences conditions in unregulated rivers are triggered by river height, which means the irrigators get to use their entitlements when a good flow comes past their pumps - which currently includes environment water.
Irrigators argue the Minister’s new environment water protections could significantly diminish the value of their water entitlements, which are purchased as a property right, particularly when water is scarce.
The CEWH will look to piggyback their water releases on natural flows, which would otherwise be available to irrigators. If a cease to pump order is issued under expanded 324 powers as a rare natural flow moves through the Northern Basin, irrigators would lose a valuable opportunity to water crops with the portion of water that they used to access.
Shepherding is more straightforward during a targeted release into a dry river.
A spokeswoman for Regional Water Minister Niall Blair cited the recent ‘northern connectivity event’, which trialed an environmental embargo to shepherd water into a dry system.
She said in order to protect third party water rights, experts were on the ground ready to amend that order if a subsequent natural flow occurred.
She said government was looking at additional mechanisms to balance irrigation and environmental water use, and that regulations around the legislation would be developed in consultation with stakeholders.
“All regulations are subject to a disallowance motion in the Legislative Council so the same level of Parliamentary scrutiny applies,” she said.
Compo must be set in stone
Irrigators’ concerns about the Bill to expand Ministerial embargo powers under Section 324 of the Water Management Act, to protect environment water, centre on the loss of value through reduced access to their entitlements.
They’re angry there are no provisions for compensation in Regional Water Minister Niall Blair’s proposed legislation, and are not comforted by the Minister’s assurances he will address stakeholder’s problems in future regulations.
“The Government is not proposing to commence the amendments to section 324 until regulations are made which will provide a framework for the circumstances in which a temporary water restriction order can be made,” a spokeswoman for Mr Blair said.
NSW Farmers president Derek Schoen said the proposed reforms would impact water entitlements and property rights, a view which is shared by a number of irrigator stakeholder groups.
“NSW Farmers maintains that appropriate compensatory measures should be built into the legislation. Regulation which can be changed at the whim of future ministers does not provide water users with stability when mandatory conditions are imposed,” Mr Schoen said.
”One particularly concerning amendment in the Water Management Amendment Bill 2018 removes crown liability if riparian landholders experience damage or loss as a result of the release of environmental water. This is unacceptable, the NSW Government needs to be held to account for these releases.”