SECRET documents reveal the NSW Water Minister has ignored the warnings of department staff about proposed changes to the state's floodplain harvesting rules, which may not be compliant with the state government's own Water Management Act.
In an email, a senior official said a legal challenge was "considered likely" if suggested changes were not made to the proposed flows targets, which would only restrict floodplain harvesting during the "first flush" after a dry period.
Department staff point out the flow targets were so low, they were unlikely to make a noticeable difference to the overall floodplain harvesting take and were in conflict with a key tenet of the Water Management Act.
However despite the concerns, Water Minister Kevin Anderson is pushing ahead with the controversial flow targets.
The documents were obtained through a parliamentary call for papers by independent politician Justin Field.
"These documents show Minister Anderson's floodplain harvesting targets do not address the risk to downstream communities and the environment from floodplain harvesting and are likely to fall foul of the law," Mr Field said.
"I'm deeply concerned that the Water Minister is trying to ram through inadequate water sharing rules at the 11th hour which do not address community and environment needs or the requirements of the law.
"Instead, they will lock in billions of dollars of new water rights to a handful of large irrigators without adequate protections."
The flow targets were also found inadequate in a study by the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists.
Group member and ANU Professor Jamie Pittock said the flow targets only stopped floodplain harvesting when there was the "barest of trickles" down the Darling River.
"Our concern is these targets don't actually help the government meet its own targets around protecting domestic water and conserving environmental assets," Prof Pittock said.
"What floodplain harvesting does is kill those small pulses that come down the river after rain. We lose those variable flows that sustain environments like wetlands and red gum forests that rely on them."
Mr Anderson was asked why he was ignoring the concerns of department staff, and said the department had provided legal advice that the plans could lawfully be made and "the targets comply with the principles of the Water Management Act".
"By licensing floodplain harvesting the NSW government is ensuring that the water take is accurately measured, giving greater protections to the environment and water users downstream," Mr Anderson said.
"When it comes to managing water in NSW my view is healthy rivers, healthy farms and healthy communities. Not one or the other."
The documents also reveal Mr Anderson is pushing for Environment Minister James Griffin to sign off on changes to the state's Water Sharing Plans to implement the targets before 30 June.
The internal department tension may lead to yet another delay in NSW submitting the plans, which are already three years late, to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.
The Inspector-General of Water Compliance recently said if there were more delays in NSW's WRP, or they are submitted and rejected by the MDBA, he would ask the Commonwealth to exercise legislation that allows it to step in and create the state's WRP.
"There are a handful of people who benefit from floodplain harvesting, mostly in the northern basin," Mr Field said.
"The government is holding up the process for the benefit of a few hundred people, and putting everyone else interested behind them."
National Rural Affairs reporter, focusing on rural politics and issues. Whisper g'day mate to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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