The Real Cost of Floodplain Harvesting

Mel Gray – 31/5/2020

From 2002 to 2008 my parents managed sheep stations along the Darling-Baaka River around the Tilpa area. During visits home when there was a flood event expected, I remember the fax machine would ring every morning with a warning – a rise in the river of xyz metres is expected in your area in xyz weeks’ time. Get prepared!

Growing up on our farm in the flood-zone of the Clarence River, the warning time for floods was days at best, and the impact to our lives and my parents business was all consuming. Like a well-oiled machine, we’d have the cattle and machinery to higher ground, the furniture lifted. Time to settle in and marvel at the awesome power of a Clarence River flood.

The gift that was left of thick rich fertile silt, up to several feet deep, would enrich and sustain the floodplain landscape, and my parent’s business, for years. The salt water that inevitably creeps up the Clarence for several hundred river kilometres in dry times, pushed well back out to sea. The nutrient rich floodwaters kick starting the web of life in the prawn and crab rich estuaries like the Broadwater and Wooloweyah Lagoon and the coastal recreational and commercial fishing grounds off the coast of Yamba. Sea food heaven.

Now out west, we looked forward to experiencing the mighty Darling Baaka in flood. So we’d wait. And wait, and wait. The river levels remained unchanged, after several weeks the faxes would stop.

mum Mum in the Darling Baaka at Tilpa, circa 2004

The floodplains remained dry, dusty, and without the rich covering of fertile silt. The rains that triggered the teasing faxes had fallen many hundreds of kilometres away. We’d heard stories of water skiing on the many enormous ephemeral lakes in the area. They remained empty. By now, almost two decades on, even the centuries old Red Gums are dying.

Since the 1990’s, floods along the Darling Baaka have become smaller and less frequent.  As a consequence the land, animals, people and economies have been dying.

The impact on First Nation communities is heart shattering. The average life expectancy for a male in Wilcannia is 37. The Baaka is the blood of the Barkandji People and without the river they are dying.

wilcannia  ABC News April 2018, Wilcannia

The communities are weakened to a point that we (the white benefactors of colonisation) cannot fully understand. ‘We’ have no way to fully understand how it must be for Elders to watch their 80,000 years plus culture die.

What is happening on the Darling Baaka is cultural genocide.

I moved to the Macquarie Valley in 2011, and fell head over heels in love with the Wambuul Macquarie River and the amazing internationally significant Ramsar listed Macquarie Marshes.

I volunteered a lot of my time restoring the riparian zone around Dubbo with our local BushCare group.

troy Community tree planting day July 2017

I joined a kayak club and got to know the river and Marshes well. I started a grassroots community group, and became an environmental advocate.

The summer of 2019/20 was shocking in the Macquarie Valley. The sharp severity of the drought was unprecedented. The frequency and intensity of the dust storms was actually a little scary.

The Warren weir was raised by WaterNSW stopping flows beyond. Downstream, the river rapidly dried up to a series of disconnected green pools.

ds warren nov 19 Macquarie River, 20km downstream of Warren NSW, November 2019

Insurance populations of turtles and fish were rescued from the river and secured in hatcheries by environmental agencies. Despite commendable efforts from the recreational fishing community to rescue as many fish as possible, mass fish deaths resulted.

The Macquarie Marshes were parched. There hadn’t been any surface water in the core Marsh since January 2019. The impact of years of ‘tight’ river management was evident – there was far less water around, and it disappeared very quickly.

20190828_100555 resize Dead Red Gums, Macquarie Marshes August 2019

Critical human need and stock and domestic requirements had not been met along the creeks downstream of Warren or the Lower Macquarie.

There was a shocking loss of wildlife as a result. Mobs of kangaroos perished, many 50 year old plus turtles died, and we lost some of the oldest mussels known to exist in our fresh water rivers. The loss of vegetation meant less habitat for many and varied water dependent animals, fish and birds.

The North Marsh reed bed (the largest reed bed in the Murray Darling Basin) caught a lightning strike in October 2019 and about 5,000 ha was burnt.

fire North Marsh reed bed, October 2019

It was a tough time for the Traditional Owners and Elders, the landholders, recreational fishers, the whole community. It was a tough time to be an environmentalist.

We knew the reed beds need flood water ASAP. While they shot up after some rain fall that summer, we understood that they were using what little precious reserves their rhizomes held, making floodwater even more critical to their recovery.

Then the floods came in February 2020, entering the Macquarie in several events through the Bell, Little and Talbragar Rivers – all of which are downstream of Burrendong Dam.

Supplementary access to several of the flows was allowed, removing about 35 Gigalitres before the Marshes. From the 130 GL that was metered upstream of the Marshes, an unknown, unmetered volume of water was floodplain harvested.

These extraction activities were allowed from the critical first flush after the most severe drought we have known. From the information I have been able to find through the WaterNSW and DPIE water websites, I do not think the critical environmental needs of the Ramsar listed internationally significant Macquarie Marshes, or the water-starved river and creeks downstream of Warren, were given enough consideration when the decision to allow take was made.

The go ahead to pump and divert was given before critical human need, and stock and domestic requirements downstream had been actually met (only forecast to be met).

It was not until late April 2020, after the on-farm storages near the river were reportedly almost full, that flood water finally made it to the northern most part of the charred reed bed. Because the flows were delayed, the reeds in the northern most area missed the opportunity to get as much growth in as possible while the days were still warm, so they could store as much energy as possible before winter. We will see the impact of the delayed inundation on the recovery of the northern most section of the reed bed in spring.

Because of the delay in flows reaching all of the fire damaged reed bed, the requirement for environmental water in the Macquarie Marshes is still classified as HIGH as of autumn 2020. Connecting the Macquarie to the Barwon-Darling Rivers is a critical requirement for native fish and seasonal water replenishment in the Barwon. With flows reduced by unknown volumes, it will be more difficult to achieve the connection.

It is difficult to overstate to the reader how frustrating it is that the volumes of floodplain harvested water taken this year in the Macquarie Valley are not public.

When asked in a drought update public forum on Thursday 28th May 2020 what the volumes of floodplain harvesting take have been in the Macquarie Valley so far in 2020, WaterNSW stated they were under no obligation to tell the public. In the media, on twitter and facebook, when discussing floodplain harvesting take, representatives of the local irrigation industry play down the volume involved: “we only have a small number of floodplain harvesters in the Macquarie” Says Tony Quigley, Chair Macquarie River Food and Fibre on  ABC radio, NSW Country Hour 27/5/2020 

As this map shows, there are 99 properties and 180 storages being assessed for floodplain harvesting in the Macquarie.

nth basin mapSource: NSW Govt, Floodplain Harvesting Measurement Policy March 2020.

The Policy

The protection of first flush flows as droughts are breaking is a critically urgent matter that needs to be addressed ASAP. Floodplain harvesting should be completely restricted before the issuing of new property rights in the form of floodplain harvesting licences.

The cumulative impact of floodplain harvesting on the environment, culture, communities and economies of the Basin must be assessed before the issue of brand new property rights.

The climate is drying and water is becoming scarcer. In the spirit of the Commonwealth Water Act 2007 and the Murray Darling Basin Plan, the needs of the environment must be prioritised. Following the development of the floodplain harvesting it seems to me that the current NSW Government prioritises maximising irrigation extraction, framing that priority as ‘supporting communities’.

The issuing of floodplain harvesting licences will be the biggest issue of brand new property rights since the 1990’s. It will signify a massive wealth shift from the public purse to private and corporate hands.

Floodplain harvesting licences should not be tradable. As physical structures are involved it would be difficult and expensive to monitor compliance. Opportunistic access to flows should not be a tradable right.

Floodplain harvesting licences were made compensable in a 2014 amendment to the NSW Water Management Act 2000 (WMA), even though they still don’t exist. Section 87AA of the WMA must be overturned. Until it is, there is a risk that any adjustment to volumes after licences are issued will mean compensation is payable.

There must be no carryover allowance in the policy. Take must be limited to 100% of share allocation a year. Carry over allowances (up to 500% in the 2010 draft policy) will mean in dry times accounts can accumulate up to 5 times the total licence volume. When a drought breaks, the need for water in the environment is extreme. This will coincide with empty farm dams and access accounts several times larger than the licence allowance. To assist the protection of first flush flows, there must be no carryover allowance.

There should be no exemption for rainfall run off capture in a developed area. Rainfall captured on irrigation fields should either be the 10% harvestable right that all landholders have access to, or be included in a water access licence.

The Long Term Annual Average Extraction Limit must not be increased to accommodate new floodplain harvesting access licence shares. The new volumes must be included in the current volume of shares in each water source.

The irrigation industry has expanded to the large scale it is by benefiting from free access to vast volumes of floodwater, sometimes using unapproved illegal structures. To rectify this enormous imbalance, the volumes of take need to be rationalised under current limits. Bringing floodplain harvesting volumes under the current levels of take will have a big impact on the scale of the irrigation industry in the Northern Basin. The main crop that would be impacted happens to be cotton. Employment in cotton has decreased significantly in recent years due to advances in labour saving technology and genetic modification, despite crop sizes and water extraction increasing. Investment in regional communities is required to build resilience in our rural economies facing a future with less water. Reports show investing in human services in Basin communities is the most efficient and secure way to encourage economies to diversify.[1]

In January 2020 with flooding rain forecast to fall in just weeks, one department director at a meeting of senior NSW water officials is quoted in the media as saying “If you don’t have basic rights or an exemption, there is no ability to legally take water,” The Guardian Friday 29 May 2020, Kerry Brewster. NSW Officials knew decades of unmeasured floodplain harvesting by irrigators was illegal..

On the 7th February 2020 the Water Management (General) Amendment (Exemptions for Floodplain Harvesting) Regulation 2020 (“the Regulation”) came in, with no notice or explanation. The effect of the regulation was to give retrospective approval to works that had not been approved.

The Government explained that the regulation mentioned above was required so that an embargo could be placed to limit take by floodplain harvesting, but that is not the case. Take could have been restricted without it. The regulation must be repealed.

 Conclusion

Floods bring life. That is not merely a cheap platitude. Floods have, and continue to, form and feed our landscapes, rivers, wetlands, billabongs, aquifers, rich fertile floodplains, estuaries and oceans.

Since the 1990’s, the floods in the Basin have been taken. Massive volumes, entire flood events have been withheld and kept for free, to be used to create personal and corporate profit. The irrigation industry has had free access to unmeasured water from the floodplains for the past 30 years, at astounding cost to the environment, communities and economies downstream.

The injustice of this is situation is intolerable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Modelling variants of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in the context of adverse conditions in the Basin, Glyn Wittwer March 2020.

 

Drought of Record & the Macquarie Valley

Drought of Record defines the period when inflows into each catchment were at their historic lowest. The NSW Government uses the Drought of Record inflows to work out how much water can be extracted from the rivers in the year ahead, by coming up with an Available Water Determination.

In the case of several NSW rivers, including the Macquarie River, the Drought of Record is only based on the years before July 2004. That means that in future years, the current shocking drought will not be considered when the Government comes up with the Available Water Determination. Water managers will continue to assume Burrendong dam will fill every two years.

Truth Pie

Until the rains came in early 2020, the Macquarie River was on track to stop flowing at Burrendong dam by October 2020, in what would have been an environmental, economic and social catastrophe.

Capping the Drought of Record to pre-2004 volumes was the doing of then NSW Water Minister Kevin Humphries in 2014. Listen as Mr Humphries explains that saving water ‘just in case’ there is another big drought would reduce general security license allocations by between 8 and 20%.

Kevin Humpries explains capping the Drought of Record

Current NSW Water Minister Pavey reinforced the Government’s priorities in Parliament in November 2019 where she said:

To include a rule that automatically requires the water supply system to adjust to new record drought would potentially result in significant quantities of water being locked away from productive use.”

The NSW upper house passed a motion last week (SMH H.Alexander&P.Hannam 19/5/20) calling on Water Minister Melinda Pavey to use up to date drought figures before submitting the water resource plans to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority for accreditation.

[Quoting from the article] Independent MP Justin Field, who moved the motion, said the National Party had explicitly removed the 2001-2009 Millenium Drought from consideration in the 2014 water-sharing plans .. “That left regional towns facing running out of water, rivers starved and massive additional stresses in agricultural and river communities,” Mr Field said.”Now is the opportunity to fix these plans before this failed model is locked in for another decade risking future water shortages.”

Mr Field’s motion was supported by Labor, Greens, One Nation and Shooters, Fishers and Farmers MPs.

Dubbo mayor Ben Shields said the irrigation lobby had unduly influenced water policy and town supply was becoming a concern for the first time. Burrendong Dam dropped to 2 per cent capacity before recent rains pushed the level to 21 per cent.

“These sort of droughts are only going to get worse and the lack of water is only going to get worse,” Mr Shields said.

 

image: Macquarie River 22km downstream of Warren November 2019

Parched marshlands in danger due to water shortages

Daily Liberal Daniel Sharkie 15/5/20

Mel Gray, a representative of the Healthy Rivers Dubbo group has called on the state government to make changes to their current involvement in the Murray-Darling basin plan in order to avoid passing beyond a ‘tipping point’ with regards to the river system.

“We’re going to need tighter rules in our water sharing plan that protect those vital first flows,” Ms Gray said.

“We’re facing a future where water is going to be more scarce than ever before in the Macquarie valley, there was a report by the state government in 2013 that told us we would have 30 percent less potable water by 2030, and unfortunately, those predictions seem to be an underestimation.”

While the group have criticised the recent proposal to create a re-regulating weir between Narromine and Warren in recent weeks, they also remain opposed to what they consider high rates of water extraction from the system.

“This is how we got into the situation that we’re in now in the first place,” Ms Gray said.

Ms Gray says that maintaining the current rate of extraction, and committing to the weir, will exacerbate the current situation and cause possibly fatal damage to the Macquarie marsh lands ecosystem.

“It’s not a good idea to extract further water from an already stressed system,” Ms Gray said.

Member for Dubbo, Dugald Saunders said that ensuring the environmental health of the Murray-Darling basin remained the goal of the government’s participation in the Murray-Darling plan.

“For my part I will continue to work with all water users and interests, including recreational users, in the Dubbo electorate to find the best balance in ensuring the river habitat is sustained while commercial agricultural producers are given the opportunity to generate income and jobs for this region,” Mr Saunders said.

He welcomed the recent wet weather as a possible salve.

“The extreme drought of the past three years has impacted on the availability of water for all users including the environment generally, and the marshes specifically,” Mr Saunders said.

“Like all residents of this region I hope the recent return to wetter weather continues to put water into the dam and brings widespread benefit to the environment, farming families and our local communities.”

More questions for Dubbo MP Dugald Saunders

In The Daily Liberal Dubbo Catches: Local MP on Gin Gin Weir 12/5, Dubbo MP Dugald Saunders claimed “Reducing the water needed to be released from Burrendong dam to supply towns, farmers, stock and domestic users and irrigators will mean in increase in overall water allocations – including environmental allocations – providing further benefit [to] the Macquarie Marshes.”

In response, Healthy Rivers Dubbo has asked for some clarification:

Mr Saunders, can you please explain to your electorate how this weir, which if built will mean an increase in overall allocations (and therefore extraction) could possibly provide further benefit to the Macquarie Marshes?

Water (operational surplus) that currently flows through Warren to the Creeks, Marshes, Lower Macquarie and Barwon Darling will be caught by the weir. From this water, most will be for irrigation, and a little will be for the environment.

Mr Saunders, can you please explain how less water will provide further benefit to the Macquarie Marshes?

Last Wednesday we learnt how the Macquarie Marshes is one of the top two candidates in the Murray Darling Basin for a critically endangered ecological community listing. Staff were told by officials that the Federal Environment Minister, Sussan Ley, would be unlikely to support the inclusion, and the recommendation was not made.

Knowing this, how can you continue to support a project that will place further pressure on the Ramsar listed, internationally significant Macquarie Marshes?

 

Melissa Gray

Convenor, Healthy Rivers Dubbo

Daily Liberal 16/6 YOUR SAY

 

12/5/2020

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28/4/2020

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Coalition ignore Marshes for CRITICALLY ENDANGERED listing, while NSW plan to take even more water.

A clear candidate for assessment for a critically endangered listing, the “wetland and inner floodplain of the Macquarie Marshes” was one of two ecological communities not put forward for a listing as environment minister, Sussan Ley, was “unlikely to support” their inclusion on the 2019 list of species and habitats under consideration for protection.

Listed as critically endangered by then environment minister Mark Butler in the final days of the Labor government in 2013, after the Coalition won government, both listings were disallowed under the new environment minister, Greg Hunt.

“Science, not politics, should be the only basis for listings but it’s clear that as it stands this isn’t always the case,”

Even with good inflows in early 2020, so much water from the first flows was extracted and diverted by floodplain harvesting that the environmental demands for water in the Macquarie Marshes is currently classified as HIGH.

In this light, plans for a re regulating weir at Gin Gin which will allow even more water to be extracted upstream of the Marshes border on immoral.

Murray-Darling systems not assessed for endangered listing after officials warned Coalition would not support it

 

 

 

 

 

Environmental concerns only growing – Healthy Rivers Dubbo

Daily Liberal Healthy Rivers Dubbo 6/5/2020

The Macquarie is a vital tributary of the Barwon Darling Rivers, it’s winter and spring inflows very welcome in the Barwon at a time when the monsoon fed rivers of the north are contributing less water.

Native fish need the Macquarie and Barwon to connect – from the Barwon Darling they pick up the scent of an in flowing tributary river, and make their way upstream into the rich feeding grounds of the Macquarie Marshes, the river and creeks.

It’s very alarming to read the outgoing WaterNSW CEO David Harris (Daily Liberal 1 May 2020) attempt to address environmental concerns about the proposed re regulating weir at Gin Gin by saying that flows will be caught that would otherwise flow ‘to the end of the system’. It is vital that water does flow to the end of the system, unimpeded by a new dam structure.

David Harris’ Letter to the Editor WaterNSW addresses environmental concerns has only served to increase the communities concerns. How can we trust a corporation that considers stopping water flowing to the end of the river is a benefit to the environment?

Healthy Rivers Dubbo is a grass roots community group dedicated to providing a strong voice for our local rivers, aquifers and wetlands in the Murray-Darling Basin for the benefit of wildlife, plants and people. We pay our respects to Elders past present and emerging, and acknowledge this land was never ceded.

Melissa Gray

Convenor, Healthy Rivers Dubbo

 

 

Image: confluence of the Macquarie and Bogan Rivers

More questions raised about river re-regulating storage project – Inland Rivers Network

Firstly, the explanation about capturing water that currently flows to the end of the system is of great concern. The end of the Macquarie River connects up with the Darling River system.

Any flows that reach the Darling are very important for providing native fish passage up into the Macquarie and for providing important downstream water.

Rainfall rejections generally happen when the system is wetted up and lots of natural triggers have been set off for fish, water birds, frogs, water plants and the many other species that have rainfall responses.

The retention of these flows in the proposed new storage will impact on the health of the downstream environment all the way to the Darling and beyond. We do not understand why the term storage is different to a dam.

Secondly, the environmental water allowances held in Burrendong Dam are not the only water that is important to river health. Flows that occur naturally, with rainfall, including from tributaries that enter the Macquarie downstream of Burrendong have more nutrients, oxygen and no cold water pollution. They are much healthier for the river system and for fish.

WaterNSW CEO David Harris has failed to inform the public about the full range of river operations. This includes meeting water orders from tributary inflows, rather than releasing the orders from Burrendong. This water is likely to be stored in the proposed new structure, thus contradicting the information that the weir will not stop tributary flows.

The environmental impacts of this new large instream structure on the Macquarie River are not likely to be mitigated or offset. The river system including the internationally significant Macquarie Marshes will suffer the consequences.

The Inland Rivers Network (“IRN”) is a coalition of environment groups and individuals that has been advocating for healthy rivers, wetlands and groundwater in the Murray-Darling Basin since 1991.

 

Ann Reeves

Hon Secretary

Inland Rivers Network

 

 

 

 

 

How can we trust WaterNSW?

The Murray Cod With Dry Backs!

Releases of environmental water are designed carefully, so that natural conditions can be replicated to facilitate the desired outcomes. When Cod are on the nest, they need steady water heights. It’s important that when they find a nest site they like, the Cod feel safe and have a good experience while on the nest, they tend to return to the same nest site if they feel safe.  Environmental water releases are designed with a ‘stable Cod flow’ portion from mid September to mid November. Then a little peak to disperse the eggs.

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During the ‘stable Cod flow’ it’s very important that the daily flow rate for Held and Planned environmental water be complied with.

During the 2019 water year, WaterNSW used rainfall predictions in the valley to reduce the daily flow rate, expecting catchment rainfall would meet the target flow rate at the end of the system (Marebone). The rain did not come, and there were a few significant ‘holes’ in the event.

By failing to comply with the daily flow rate, WaterNSW showed that their priorities were not in line with environmental outcomes. They seemed to overlook the importance of the ‘stable cod flow’ phase of the event, and the consequences to Cod sitting on the nest with their backs out of the water.

The Missing Fishways!

In 2011, Burrendong wall was upgraded for safety reasons, and while they were at it, another 1.8 meters was added to the height. Any time a structure in a river is modified, an environmental offset must be delivered. So, back in 2011, WaterNSW was legally obliged to construct three fishways in the Wambuul Macquarie River – at Gin Gin weir, Gunningbah offtake and Marebone break.

Nearly ten years later, and native fish in the Macquarie River are still banging their heads against a wall. In 2014, then NSW water minister Katrina Hodgkinson put the projects on hold, citing the costs as the reason. After some pressure from the community in late 2019, a promise has been made by WaterNSW to submit the fishways to IPART for funding in the 2022-2025 period – we’ll believe it when we see it.

WaterNSW have proved they are not motivated by an interest in improving fish passage in the Macquarie River. They are obliged to include a fish passage structure in the design of the re regulating weir that is being planned for Gin Gin, however if they cared about native fish in the Macquarie, they would have met their legal and moral obligation and built one at the site nearly a decade ago.

The Orange Pipeline Promises!

More broken promises, this time upstream of Burrendong where the Macquarie River to Orange pipeline was built. The agreement was that if the river fell below 108 megalitres a day flow, the pumps would be stopped. Jump forward to 2019 and the rules have been changed, promises broken. Going against the agreements made, pumping is now allowed when flows in the Macquarie are as low as 38 megalitres a day, when the river is all but a series of pools.

Once it’s built, anything goes!

It is startling to learn that while projects might require environmental assessment to get approval once they are built, the rules can be changed with no need for any environmental assessment of the impact of the new conditions.

If the proposed re regulating weir at Gin Gin is approved and built, WaterNSW have proven they cannot be trusted to keep any promises that they make to get the project approved.

Which Pie Graph is Baked?

A lack of transparency in water management was one of the central findings of the scathing Ken Matthews Report 2017, instigated by the NSW Government following the startling revelations of Four Corners episode ‘Pumped’ in July of that year. WaterNSW reports are notoriously difficult to interpret, and far from transparent.

In early 2020, WaterNSW presented a pie graph titled ‘Where the water went’ to the public during a drought update seminar. The generalised labels don’t clearly explain that this graph refers to natural flows as well as dam releases, and it captures a time in 2016 when there was a lot of water around.

This graph also fails to explain that vast, unmetered, volumes of water was diverted by way of floodplain harvesting infrastructure into private and corporate on-farm dams for free. WaterNSW still stubbornly withhold what volumes of water have been withheld from the river by floodplain harvesting from the public.

The WaterNSW graph was so misleading, a concerned citizen interpreted from it that 78% of water released from Burrendong in the two years 2017-2019 was for the environment. The actual figures of water ordered and released from Burrendong are startlingly different, showing that only 26% was ordered by environmental water holders, 45% was released for irrigation, with the other 29% being used for operations, towns water supply, stock and domestic and high security in the regulated section of the Macquarie.

202003 WaterNSW Pie Graph -1Truth Pie

What’s in a Name?

We have heard from WaterNSW that they will not capture tributary flows with their enormous new re regulating weir. But wait! What is this on page 16 of their Scoping Report?

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The tricky bit here is that WaterNSW consider some tributary inflows that enter the Macquarie below Burrendong as dam releases, even though they are not released from the dam.

What? How can that make sense? Flows from the Little, Bell, Talbragar, Coolbaggie and the like are not released from Burrendong dam, so how can WaterNSW consider them to be? They just do, it suits their purpose.

We’re not that gullible. WaterNSW cannot be trusted.