Gin Gin re-regulating dam plans slammed by NSW Government.

Last year in an assessment of the project plans for the Gin Gin dam (Macquarie River re-regulating storage project) the Deputy Secretary of DPIE Water Jim Bentley said the project plans had significant deficiencies, and did not meet the requirements to demonstrate value for money and prudent use of public funds.

The Snowy Hydro Legacy Fund project proposal spelt out the reason for the dam –

The largest agricultural use of water in the valley is for irrigated cotton production downstream of Dubbo. This industry is underpinned by water and many of these users hold general security water licences. The investigation of a re-regulating weir will help determine whether the infrastructure will improve the reliability of water for these users in the context of a more variable future climate.

The State significant infrastructure development application for the proposal MUST be cancelled, as the proposal is only for the benefit of the cotton industry.

The expected capital cost of the proposal was also divulged in a release of documents through the NSW Parliament – a massive $84 million before the inevitable cost blow outs.

That is an enormous amount of money to be spent subsidising a privileged industry that is about to be gifted hundreds of millions of dollars of brand new compensable mortgagable property rights as floodplain harvesting licences.

With over 62,000 megalitres of floodplain water licences about to be gifted, why should the public pay an additional $84 million for a destructive project that would offer irrigated cotton another 14,500 megalitres a year? When is enough enough?

Community calls for the business case to be released in it’s current form continue:

  • Will the impact on irrigation in the unregulated Macquarie River downstream of Marbone weir be assessed?
  • What about the huge knock to the recreational fishing industry?
  • The Macquarie Marshes will be devastated
  • There will be fewer kayakers coming to the valley
  • The best camping spot on the Mid-Macquarie will be destroyed
  • There will be less water in the Warren weir

This proposal was dubbed an ineffective use of public funds in February last year, and funding for the business case was delayed by 8 months because of the plan’s significant deficiencies. Once a dud, always a dud – time to dump the Gin Gin dam plan.

NSW Treasury and the Snowy Hydro Legacy Fund tend to agree. Treasury withheld funding for the business case, and the Snowy Hydro Legacy fund flatly refused a request to fund the Environmental Impact Statement.

Documents seen by HRD state that the estimated $84 million capital expense will not be coming from the Snowy Hydro Legacy Fund, as earlier anticipated. No-one wants to pay for this enormous dud.

Read our supplementary submission to the Upper House Inquiry into the rationale for, and impacts of, new dams and other water infrastructure in NSW here.


In September 2019 HRD made a submission to the NSW Upper House Inquiry into the rationale for, and impacts of, new dams and other water infrastructure in NSW.

Our original submission went into detail about:

  • Macquarie River re-regulating storage project
  • Raising of Wyangala dam wall
  • Mole River dam
  • Dungowan Creek dam
  • Western Weirs project

Floodplain Harvesting Rules for the Macquarie-Wambool

Sunday 18 April 2021

SUBMISSION

Floodplain harvesting licence rules in the water sharing plans for the Macquarie Valley

Introduction

Healthy Rivers Dubbo (HRD) is a grass roots community network 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 and present, and acknowledge that this land was never ceded.

HRD are pleased to have the opportunity to comment on the establishment of rules in the water sharing plan (WSP) for floodplain harvesting (FPH) in the Macquarie-Wambool Valley. HRD accepts that FPH in NSW must be licenced.

Before we detail our comments on the proposed rules, there are some critical issues with FPH in general that, as environmental stakeholders and First Nations allies, HRD is obliged to comment on.

Plan Limit and Cap

There is not enough evidence for the public to accept DPIE Water’s claim that total extractions in the Macquarie-Wambool are below the cap and the sustainable diversion limit (SDL).

In recent years, and coinciding with the latest round of FPH policy implementation, environmental stakeholder have started hearing water departments and agencies claiming that Cap limits and SDLs are definitions, not volumes as they were previously understood by the community as being.

We now are witnessing the volumes of FPH being added to the Cap limits, when previously FPH diversions have been considered as going to the environment.

Decisions made about reducing the volume of water to be recovered from irrigation for the environment in the Northern Basin in 2017 were made assuming the large volumes of water that have been taken by FPH were going to the environment.

The Macquarie-Wambool is an over allocated Valley. When Burrendong dam was completed in 1966/67 the yield of the Macquarie River was assessed as 406,000 ML. Too many licences have been issued, and now the total allocation of regulated and supplementary flow water for the system is around 899,000 ML[1].

There is simply too much demand on the Valley for the volume of licences, which is why reliability is around 30% on average and dropping. This low reliability goes a long way towards explaining why irrigators can’t access as much water as their entitlement.

HRD points to a recent report by consultants Slattery and Johnson that shows on farm capacity has increased by a factor of 2.4 times since 1994. This finding fits with our observations and local knowledge. We can see the increased levees as we drive west from Narromine. We know people who were flat out working during the 2017-2020 drought deepening on farm storages and increasing levees saying the land owner wants to hold 2 years water on farm when the drought breaks.

If on farm capacity has increased by 2.4 times since 1994:

  • those earthworks weren’t done for nothing
  • there’s been no increase in licences since then
  • the capacity must be mostly for storing water from FPH diversion, or from water theft

This increase of on farm storage has helped the industry leave a lot of water in their general security and supplementary accounts, as they preference filling up on free, unmeasured water from the floodplain. Not having to access the general security and supplementary accounts is a major reason why irrigators don’t access their full allocation – they don’t need to.

There is no evidence to substantiate the new Cap limit in the Macquarie, and no access to the accredited Cap model reports.

ICAC found that DPIE Water has a practice of favouring irrigation in “a misguided effort to redress a perceived imbalance caused by the Basin Plan’s prioritisation of the environment’s needs[2].

HRD considers that DPIE Water continues to treat First Nations rights to water and the environment like opponents to their endeavours by working out ways to increase Cap limits to suit extraction.

Environmental Outcomes

Macquarie Marshes:

NSW has a legal and moral responsibility to protect the integrity of the internationally significant Macquarie Marshes under the Ramsar Convention, Migratory Bird agreements, the Water Management Act 2000, the Water Act 2007 and the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

“The unregulated floods, particularly the significant large floods, are critical for sustaining this ecosystem of national and international importance[3]

The Macquarie Marshes have reduced in size considerably since growth in FPH diversions.

The Australian Government notified the Ramsar Secretariat in 2010 of a “likely change in ecological character of the Macquarie Marshes Ramsar site”, stating a range of reasons based on scientific evidence, including changes in the flow regime; change in the extent and condition of the wetland vegetation communities in the southern part of the Macquarie Marshes Nature Reserve; change in extent and condition of wetland vegetation communities in the northern section of the Macquarie Marshes Nature Reserve; changes in the ecological character of the Wilgara wetland and; changes in colonial waterbird breeding. [4]

Connectivity:

The Macquarie-Wambool River has provided 21% of flows to the Barwon Darling-Baaka Rivers over the long term. Unique in the Northern Basin, The Macquarie-Wambool, Castlereagh and Bogan Rivers are winter and spring fed systems, and provide flows to the Barwon Darling-Baaka when other monsoon fed systems don’t.

Records show that the Macquarie-Wambool connected to the Barwon (at a depth in the Lower Macquarie of at least 50cm) 9 years in 11 before Burrendong dam was built. Development of the valley means connection occurs 5 years in 11 now (as of 2017). Connections between major rivers represent important links for the movement of fish, transfer of energy, riverine biodiversity and providing a diverse aquatic habitat. [5]

HRD considers that DPIE is acting against its own laws by not applying the priority of use and cultural requirements in the Water Management Act 2000 to the application of FPH licencing and rules in the Macquarie-Wambool Valley by reducing allowable FPH diversions to secure environmental improvement for the Ramsar Macquarie Marshes, and increased connectivity with the Barwon Darling-Baaka Rivers.

Modelling

HRD strongly believes that the modelling used to determine FPH shares in the Macquarie-Wambool is not fit for purpose.

FPH licenced volume determinations will have a permanent detrimental impact on the environment, First Nations rights to water and basic landholder rights. The volume will also determine how large the wealth shift from the public purse to private and corporate hands will be when mortgageable, tradable, compensable licences are issued.

Climate change has not been factored in into the modelling, despite new robust climate/hydrologic datasets developed by DPIE last year for inclusion in the Regional Water Strategies (RWS). With these new datasets, DPIE has been able to come up with a ‘base case’ river system model.

The RWS states: “just relying on our historical data to make water management decisions no longer represents the best course of action and that we have an opportunity to put plans in place to make sure we are prepared and resilient if there are future changes in the climate.”

Against its own advice, DPIE Water have omitted climate change from FPH models. HRD will discuss the impact of neglecting climate change on FPH rule applications under “Discussion of Proposed Rules 1. Account Management”further down in the submission.

There is only a summary Review of NSW Macquarie River Valley Model Build, Scenarios and Environmental Outcomes report publicly available. The independent peer reviewers Alluvium only had access to reports, not the models themselves.

The Model Build Report identifies a lot of highly significant inaccuracies around the meters used to measure river diversions. There’s a lack of real data on floodplain harvesting volumes, despite the FPH policy being in some form of development since 2008. In the Macquarie there’s a +51% error rate/bias upstream of Narromine, which is extremely significant.[6]

In the Macquarie Cudgegong there is 10,254 ML of water being considered for tailwater/rainfall runoff exemption. HRD does not trust the modelling used to come up with that volume. If this significant volume of water is not brought into the FPH licencing framework, it won’t be counted towards the SDL. This form of take would not need to be measured, just ‘monitored’ for assessment under the risk assessment in the Water Resource Plan. Any volume of rainfall runoff harvested above the 10% harvestable right must be licenced.

Return flows aren’t assessed by the models used. Their only function is to attempt to calculate floodwaters captured, not those that return to the river or floodplain environment. There’s a strong chance water that returns to the river or stays on the floodplain is being assessed as FPH diverted volumes.

As stated by Alluvium: “We note the statements in the report that the uncertainty in individual FPH take estimates (leading to entitlements) is still significant and measurement data is needed to improve on that.”[7] This statement confirms that the inaccuracy of the volumes determined as eligible for FPH diversion are significantly incorrect.

For such a critical determination that will seal the fate of many people and much wildlife to be dependent on the use of models that are not up to the job HRD considers to be a negligent act.

Discussion of Proposed Rules

1. Account Management

HRD strongly supports annual accounting for FPH with no “carryover”*

HRD has heard DPIE Water trying to explain that the environment would be better off under 5 year accounting and 500% carryover and we strongly disagree.

DPIE Water is only looking backwards at flood behaviour up to 2009, when they know floods will change their patterns due to climate change.

From the Macquarie Castlereagh RWS, the Valley can expect “reduced frequency of floods, but when they do occur, significantly higher flood flows throughout the entire region, particularly during the summer-autumn period.”

And also from the same RWS:

“just relying on our historical data to make water management decisions no longer represents the best course of action and that we have an opportunity to put plans in place to make sure we are prepared and resilient if there are future changes in the climate.”

HRD considers that under future conditions, 5 year with 500% “carryover”* will lead to greater FPH diversions than 1 year accounting. We find it consistent with ICAC findings (that DPIE Water favours irrigators over First Nations rights to water and the environment) that DPIE Water are trying to tell us that the environment will be better off under 5 year accounting, when they are knowingly not using climate change predictions in their models.

*N.B. HRD rejects DPIE Water’s use of the term “carryover” to describe entitlements for water that does not exist. HRD asks that DPIE Water come up with another term, such as credit accounting.

2. Initial Available Water Determination

HRD strongly supports an initial AWD of 1ML per unit share or less

Alluvium state in their letter reviewing the modelling reports that: “We note the statements in the report that the uncertainty in individual FPH take estimates (leading to entitlements) is still significant and measurement data is needed to improve on that.

DPIE Water know that the volumes licenced are significantly wrong, therefore the precautionary principle must be applied and an initial AWD of no more than 1 ML per unit share be allowed.

FPH diversions have been denying First Nations rights to water and the environment benefit from first flush flows (particularly sharply felt at the end of a drought) for decades. By granting irrigators a generous 500% hot start, DPIE Water are neglecting their legal obligations under the WMA 2000.

3. Permanent Trade

HRD fully supports that permanent trade be restricted to management zones as proposed

While we would prefer FPH access licences not be tradable, we accept that it is a requirement under the Basin Plan that licences are tradable.

It is very important that trade be restricted as proposed:

  • No new works located in management zones A or D as specified in the (as yet un-gazetted) Floodplain Management Plan for the Macquarie Valley Floodplain 2021.
  • No modifications to works located in management zones A or D if the modification would result in an increase in capacity for that work.
  • No new or modified works outside management zones A and D if the construction or modification would result in an increased rate of take for works located in management zone A or D.

4. Granting or amending water supply works nominated by a floodplain harvesting (regulated river) access licence

No new approvals or modifications that increase diversions

HRD would prefer that DPIE Water were very clear that there can be no growth in FPH diversions, as we feel that is not the case through this consultation process.

HRD considers that:

  • no new works approvals should be issued for FPH in the Macquarie Valley
  • no modifications of existing FPH works should be allowed if the capacity of diversions would be increased
  • only maintenance of existing FPH works should be allowed if the maintenance means there would be no increased diversion of water
  • all licences works must allow floodwaters to pass without diversion or significantly slowing the flow for times when diversions are not permitted

5. Access Rules

HRD supports option 2 – prohibiting access until downstream flow targets are met.

There are no clear, measurable protocols that DPIE Water can enact to ensure the priority of use provisions in the WMA 2000 are applied.

HRD recommends end of system flow targets be introduced in the Macquarie Cudgegong regulated WSP. Access rules for FPH in the WSP should specify that FPH diversion may occur only after modelling of a flow event shows that relevant flow targets will be achieved.

Flow targets must aim to achieve:

  • Water sharing priorities under the WMA (ss. 5(3) and 9(1)), which include water for ecosystem health and basic landholder rights (stock and domestic; native title rights);
  • Environmental needs based on NSW Long Term Watering Plans (LTWP) Environmental Water Requirements (EWR);
  • Critical human water needs; and
  • Cultural rights and objectives in addition to Native Title rights.

6. Active Management

HRD supports the use of active management rules to protect 100% of HEW

HRD supports the proposed use of active management rules to protect HEW from FPH diversion when Held Environmental Water (HEW) being used to create an overbank flow in the management zone where active management applies.

However, the rules do not go far enough. HRD considers rules that protect 100% of HEW from diversion even when active management conditions are below 100% must be implemented.

HEW can be present in the system not just from planned releases from storages, but also under supplementary access. It is reasonable to expect supplementary HEW flows would be vulnerable to FPH diversion if the rules aren’t there to protect it.

7. Environmental Flow Rules

Active management rules must be extended to protect 100% of Active EWA

Just as HEW can be used to create overbank flows in the Gum Cowal, Lower Macquarie Upstream and Lower Macquarie Downstream management zones, so too can environmental water allowance sub account 1 (active EWA).

Active EWA and HEW are managed together in the Macquarie Valley, therefore rules that protect HEW must also protect active EWA.

HRD recommends extending the active management application that protects HEW so that active EWA is also protected.

8. Amendment provisions

HRD supports the proposed amendment provisions for the Macquarie Cudgegong regulated WSP.

Conclusion

DPIE Water have consulted with the irrigation industry regularly, and with environmental stakeholders rarely. HRD is concerned that the bias DPIE Water shows irrigation in the management of water in NSW, as reported by ICAC last November, is informing the granting of FPH licences and implementation of WSP rules.

The definition of Cap is being used as an elastic definition that provides the answer that suits the outcome desired.

By not reducing FPH diversions in the Macquarie, DPIE Water has sealed the fate of the declining Wambool River, Macquarie Marshes and Lower Darling-Baaka Rivers and the cultures, wildlife and communities they support.

Yours Sincerely,

Melissa Gray

Convenor

Healthy Rivers Dubbo


[1] Johnson W J (2005) Adaptive management of a complex social-ecological system: the regulated Macquarie River in south-eastern Australia. Master of Resource Science Thesis, University of New England.

[2] ICAC Investigation into complaints of corruption in the management of water in NSW and systematic non-compliance with the Water Management Act 2000 – November 2020.

[3] (Kingsford and Thomas, 1995; Thomas et al., 2011; Bino et al., 2015b; Thomas et al., 2015

[4] http://www.environment.gov.au/water/topics/wetlands/database/pubs/28-statement-of-reasons-3-2-notification-20100204.pdf

[5] Making the Connection: Designing, delivering and monitoring flows between catchments – making-connection.pdf

[6] Model Build Report Table 3.7

[7] Alluvium Review of NSW Macquarie River Valley Model Build, Scenarios and Environmental Outcomes reports relevant to Floodplain Harvesting Policy implementation

Media Release – Playing favourites on the floodplains

Media Release

Playing favourites on the floodplains

Floodplain harvesters’ use levee banks to divert water that either falls as rain or breaks out of the river bank during floods into private dams. It has been an unmeasured form of free water collection, believed to have increased since 1994 by almost two and a half times.

Floodplain harvesting has contributed to dehydrated floodplains and wetlands, less resilient rivers and depleted aquifers. It has contributed to the rapid decline in size and health of the Ramsar listed Macquarie Marshes, and has been identified in several reports as a key contributor to the mass fish kills in the Lower Darling in 2019.

The NSW Government have been touting that by licencing the controversial practice, they are bringing water take back in line with the Cap Limit on extraction set in 1994, and returning some critically important flood flows to the ailing river systems of the west.

However the Macquarie will be missing out on seeing any water returned to the valley, as the NSW Government – keeping true to their form of prioritising irrigation over everyone else – have increased the Cap Limit, and are claiming that floodplain harvesting can remain at current levels.

It is stated that the volume of the individual entitlements that have been arrived at is significantly inaccurate, and yet NSW still want to allow users to take five times their licence volume when a flood comes and gift them five times the water on their licence to get started. On top of that when the significantly inaccurate licence volumes are corrected, compensation will be paid.

Quotes attributable to Mel Gray, Convenor of Healthy Rivers Dubbo 

“It is bewildering that the Government can wave a magic wand and claim less water is being taken now than in 1994, when we can see the wetlands, rivers and fish dying in front of our eyes.

“You would think the government would use the best available science and actual real life data to work out the volumes of these new licences seeing so much is at stake, but the modelling they used is rubbish.

“Despite having since 2008 to collect real data, the NSW Government have instead used secretive models to come with some rubbery numbers to convert into big, valuable, tradable, mortgageable compensable floodplain harvesting licences.

“We are being ripped off momentously. Our rivers and wetlands are being sacrificed as billions of dollars in property rights are being granted to an elite minority.”

Media Contact

Mel Gray, Convenor Healthy Rivers Dubbo – 0431 471 310

Download Healthy Rivers Dubbo submission on FPH rules in the Macquarie Valley

Floodplain harvesting to continue to devastate the Macquarie Valley

Floodplain harvesting is a form of water take that diverts water that either falls as rain or breaks out of the river bank during floods. The water is diverted into private dams using levee banks. It has been an unmeasured form of free water collection, believed to have increased since 1994 by almost two and a half times.

Floodplain Harvesting has attributed to dehydrated floodplains, wetlands, less resilient rivers and depleted aquifers. It has contributed to the rapid decline in size and health of the Ramsar listed Macquarie Marshes, and has been identified in several reports as a key contributor to the mass fish kills in the Lower Darling in 2019.

The NSW Government have been touting that by licencing the controversial practice, they are bringing water take back in line with the Cap Limit on extraction set in 1994, and returning some critically important flood flows to the ailing river systems of the west.

However the Macquarie-Wambool will be missing out on seeing any water returned to the valley, as the NSW Government – keeping true to their form of prioritising irrigation over everyone else – have somehow increased the Cap Limit to allow floodplain harvesting to remain at current levels.

It is bewildering that the Government can wave a magic wand and claim less water is being taken now than in 1994, when we can see the wetlands, rivers and fish dying in front of our eyes.

The NSW Government has legal responsibilities under the Ramsar Convention, Migratory Bird Agreements, the NSW Water Management Act 2000, the Commonwealth Water Act 2007 and the Murray Darling Basin Plan to ensure the resilience of wetlands, prioritise ecosystem health, and ensure water is available for basic landholder rights including Native Title rights to water.

It is not apparent that the NSW Government are acting in line with their legal requirements when it comes to water management, especially floodplain harvesting.

The Ramsar listed Macquarie Marshes needs flood water.

As the volume of water taken through floodplain harvesting has been growing, the size and resilience of the Marshes has been rapidly reducing.

Unregulated floods are critical for sustaining this ecosystem of national and international importance.

The Australian Government notified the Ramsar Secretariat in 2010 of a “likely change in ecological character of the Macquarie Marshes Ramsar site”, stating a range of reasons based on scientific evidence, including changes in the flow regime; change in the extent and condition of the wetland vegetation communities in the southern part of the Macquarie Marshes Nature Reserve; change in extent and condition of wetland vegetation communities in the northern section of the Macquarie Marshes Nature Reserve; changes in the ecological character of the Wilgara wetland and; changes in colonial waterbird breeding.

Keeping the connection is important

The Macquarie-Wambool River has provided 21% of flows to the Barwon Darling-Baaka Rivers over the long term. Unique in the Northern Basin, The Macquarie-Wambool, Castlereagh and Bogan Rivers are winter and spring fed systems, and provide flows to the Barwon Darling-Baaka when other monsoon fed systems don’t.

Records show that the Macquarie-Wambool connected to the Barwon (at a depth in the Lower Macquarie of at least 50cm) 9 years in 11 before Burrendong dam was built. Development of the valley means connection occurs 5 years in 11 now (as of 2017). Connections between major rivers represent important links for the movement of fish, transfer of energy, riverine biodiversity and providing a diverse aquatic habitat.  

It seems clear that the NSW Government is acting against its own laws by not applying the priority of use and cultural requirements in the Water Management Act 2000 when it comes to floodplain harvesting licencing and rules in the Macquarie-Wambool Valley.

Read Healthy Rivers Dubbo submission on the FPH rules in the Macquarie Valley

The miraculous Cap setting illusion – Floodplain harvesting limits in NSW

The NSW Government have come up with a new volume for the ‘Cap’ in the Macquarie-Wambuul Valley – and conveniently it will allow floodplain harvesting to continue at current levels.

The ‘Cap’ is supposed to be the volume of water that was being taken in 1994. That’s when communities and Basin Governments said enough is enough – too much water is being taken and the rivers, wetlands, aquifers, floodplains and estuaries are dying.

The line was drawn and agreed upon – we would not increase the volume of water we were taking from what was taken in 1994. That was the intent of setting the Cap.

A lot of work done to produce transparent, accredited Cap reports. But at some stage the accredited Cap reports were archived, never to be seen again, despite many requests.

In recent years water departments and agencies have started saying that the Cap is a concept, not a volume………… hey?

They say as they learn more about how much water was being taken, they can update the Cap…….. really? Was it really being taken then or have take increased since 1994?

Since 1994, the capacity of on farm dams to hold water has increased by a factor of 2.4. There hasn’t been any more licences issued, so it is very safe to assume that most of those dams were built to store water – free water – off the floodplains. Floodplain harvesting.

So to get this straight, the Government:

  • decided what the level of water take was in 1994 calling it the Cap,
  • then hid those accredited reports,
  • in the meantime on-farm capacity to hold water has grown by almost two and a half times
  • now the Government claim the amount of water being taken in the Macquarie Valley is less than the Cap
  • but that’s because they made up a new Cap

How did they arrive at the new Cap? Who knows. Not even the independent consultants hired to review the Government’s work got to see how that was done.

Doesn’t redefining the volume of the Cap contradict the very meaning of what a Cap is? You would think so.

They say it doesn’t matter to health of the river if they do that.

But volumes of water matter to the rivers. Water matters to wetlands, to fish, water birds, river red gums and to cultures and communities who only survive because of the river.

We are all being momentously ripped off.

Read Healthy Rivers Dubbo submission to the FPH rules in the Macquarie Valley

Healthy Rivers Dubbo comments on NSW draft water strategy

Introduction

Healthy Rivers Dubbo (HRD) is a grass roots community network 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 and present, and acknowledge that this land was never ceded.

HRD understands the importance of strategic planning, and support the principle of a NSW Water Strategy. However this document has come after the issue of several draft regional water strategies, and we feel it lacks a clear pathway to ecologically sustainable water use for the next 20 years.

Transparency

HRD has being following the implementation of the WRAP[1] process, including the transparency element.

From our perspective, there have been many opportunities and imperatives for NSW to vastly improve transparency of information, and reduce complexity in water management. We consider on the whole these opportunities have been missed by NSW.

HRD was dismayed that NSW accepted the findings of an independent review in the Matthews report that found full transparency, as proposed by the Matthews Report would expose commercially sensitive information and be too expensive.[2]

Earlier this year NSW put out a consultation paper about the transparency of water trading and water ownership information in NSW. HRD finds it unacceptable that all NSW is doing is re-organising aggregated valley wide information that has always been available.

If NSW was serious about transparency, there would have been immediate steps to develop a free access public water register following the Matthews Report containing the following information about every water access licence holder:

  • information on the location of the license;
  • clear transparency on the owner of the licence;
  • site use approvals;
  • real-time quantity of extraction under each licence;
  • historic pumping times, dates and river level;
  • trading of licences within and across valleys, and both zero-value and costed trades;
  • storage capacity of all works; and
  • a list of convictions against each water licence.

HRD considers NSW should immediately reassess its response to the Matthews Report instead of deferring a commitment to transparency to a 20 year strategy. We find that NSW putting transparency as priority one in the draft water strategy is un-reconcilable with recent actions.

Priorities of the Water Management Act 2000 (WMA)

In December 2020 the Independent Commission against Corruption released a report into water management in NSW.[3]

The report detailed a history of water agencies’ ‘undue focus on irrigator’s interests’, including more than a decade of failure to give ‘proper and full effect to the objects, principles and duties’ of the Water Management Act 2000.

HRD has followed the development of NSW Water Resource Plans, and have concluded than none of the NSW Water Sharing Plans we looked at met the obligations of the Basin Plan. Some examples that let down the WMA priorities are:

  • Class A licences still operate on the Barwon, pulling out low flows.
  • There are still no end of system targets in many Water Sharing Plans like the Macquarie and the Lower Darling-Baaka.
  • The definition of Planned Environmental Water in several Water Sharing Plans is different to the full definition in the WMA.

Connectivity is critical for rivers of the Murray Darling Basin, especially the Darling-Baaka River. Water Sharing Plans should talk to each other, and through the inclusion of end of system targets, connectivity must be enshrined in water sharing rules.

HRD is very encouraged to see the results of the climate change forecasts that have been included in the draft Regional Water Strategies. However we are extremely concerned that climate change forecasts are not included in the modelling that determined the unit shares of floodplain harvesting entitlements in the Border Rivers, Gwydir and Macquarie Water Sharing Plan rules.

There is a legal imperative for NSW to use the best science available and make decisions about water management so that extraction is limited to ecologically sustainable levels. HRD is pleased to be a dedicated environmental stakeholder in the water management process, and is committed to working with NSW towards a future with sustainably managed waterways.

First Nations Rights to Water

HRD stands by the Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations and their statement:

“Federal and state water management policy, programs and projects should result in spiritual, cultural, environmental, social and economic outcomes that are equitable, sustainable and appropriate for all First Nations people.”

HRD stands by the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN) and their statement:

“First Nations have inherent rights to use and manage waterways, in order to sustain our cultural traditions and build sustainable livelihoods for our communities.

These rights are recognised in international agreements and protocols, as well as in Australia’s domestic law and policy.”

We agree with MLRIN that all Australian Governments including NSW have failed on these commitments.

HRD does acknowledge the effort NSW made in consulting with First Nations groups for the draft Regional Water Strategies, and hope there are some meaningful outcomes for all parties as a result.

Murray Darling Basin Plan

Most of the extraction of water from the Murray Darling Basin happens in NSW, therefore it is logical that most of the water recovery must come from NSW as well. There is no unfair burden on NSW compared to other states to recover water for the rivers when one considers the great privilege NSW industries have had extracting the lion’s share of water for over 100 years.

Given that the Basin Plan began nine years ago, it is a concern to environmental stakeholders that NSW is behind by 276,000 megalitres in water recovery.

HRD does not support an extension of time beyond 2024 for the full implementation of the Basin Plan.

HRD objects to water that is extracted being referred to as ‘productive water’ when rivers, wetlands, aquifers and floodplains are extremely productive environments when they have enough water.

Most communities and businesses in the Murray Darling Basin are not irrigation based, and rely completely on healthy rivers, wetlands, floodplains and aquifers to survive. In the Northern Murray Darling Basin large scale irrigation has only been around since the 1980s and 1990s. Regional towns like Warren have been around a lot longer than that, and with larger agricultural job markets since highly streamlined monoculture irrigation corporations stepped in.

HRD objects NSW conflating corporate irrigation enterprises (often owned by large multi-national conglomerates) with ‘our towns and communities’, and asks NSW to see our Basin communities for who we really are.

There is no escaping the fact that a sustainable volume of water must be returned to the river system from irrigation. The volumes signed off on in the Basin Plan are heavily compromised and don’t take climate change into consideration.

HDR asks the NSW Government to support the Federal Government to buy back more water for rivers through voluntary, open-tender processes.

Dam Projects

There is a lot of stress and concern stirring in communities over several dam and infrastructure projects in NSW. The Regional Water Strategies presented some of these projects as done deals:

  • Wyangala dam wall raising
  • Macquarie River re-regulating storage project
  • Dungowan Creek dam
  • Mole River dam

The community are worried about the impacts to industries like recreational fishing ($1 billion a year in the Basin), tourism, unregulated downstream irrigation and floodplain grazing.

The business cases for all of these projects must be released as soon as they are complete. The business case for the Macquarie project is ready to a point and could be released now.

Conclusion

HRD will always support a good strategic plan, and considers that the NSW draft water strategy could use some more workshopping.

Healthy Rivers Dubbo is pleased to work with NSW into the future as an environmental stakeholder, and is grateful for the opportunity to be involved with the development of water management rules in NSW.

For more information contact: healthyriversdubbo@gmail.com

27/3/2021


[1] Water Reform Action Plan (NSW DPIE – Water)

[2] NSW ICAC report Investigation into complaints of corruption in the management of water in NSW and systematic non-compliance with the Water Management Act 2000.

[3] ibid

Gin Gin Community Day – Sunday 21st February 21

You’re Invited …

Learn more about plans to build a large new re-regulating dam on the Wambuul-Macquarie River at Gin Gin, between Narromine and Warren in Central West NSW.

Facebook Invitation

Project Information by the Wambuul Alliance
 
The event will be held on the southern side of the river. For more details call Mel 0431 471 310

No Real Improvement – Water Management as Murky as Ever in NSW

SUBMISSION – HEALTHY RIVERS DUBBO

Water Trading and Water Ownership in NSW

Healthy Rivers Dubbo (HRD) is a grass roots community network 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 future, and acknowledge that this land was never ceded.

Water is key to all life. It is the most vital of public resources. It is critically important that details about water trading and ownership are publicly available, free and easy to access from a single source.

Water Register

HRD supports the development of a Water Register with a user friendly map application that links water access licence holders with all of the water holding/trading details listed as recommendations in the Interim Matthews Report:

‘Enable the public to readily access from a single source, all details of entitlements, including: name of holder; licence number; licence conditions; water entitlement; water allocations; meter readings; real time water account balance; and all trading activities’ [1]

To this list we would add that any convictions for water theft be listed as well on the site.

HRD objects to the NSW Government’s decision to only provide aggregated totals of water licence and extraction details at a water source level.

The updates to the WaterNSW Water Insights web site and the DPIE Water Trading Dashboard are of aggregated information that was already publicly available, although difficult to find.

There will still be charges involved in searching the NSW Water Access Licence register. It was reported in the media that it would cost approximately $558,600 to search the whole register. [2]

Listing water entitlements on the foreign ownership register administrated by the ATO should be compulsory, publicly available and linked to a public Water Register.

All water entitlement acquisitions by foreign investors should be approved by the Foreign Investment Review Board, with links to the report on the public Water Register.

As the public Water Register would list all access licence holders and their details that would include all members of parliament and their families.

Water Trading

Healthy Rivers Dubbo supports the establishment of a National Water Trading Exchange.

Water trading within catchments can exacerbate environmental problems. Extraction can be concentrated upstream, impacting downstream environmental and other water users downstream. A concentration of extraction can create salinity issues, or impact important wetlands.

The public need to have access to details of water trading within catchments, so that the impact of water trading is transparent.

HRD objects to only aggregated trading data being available at a water source level.

We believe it’s important for the public to know the identity of speculators and non-land holding traders who produce no agricultural output. Speculation in the water market pushes up pricing and increases water scarcity, which is a significant threat to the environment and communities in the Basin.

Conclusion

Water is essential to existence, it is a fundamental public resource. It is very important that the public have a clear line of sight to who is taking water, how much they are taking and trading, and if they have any convictions for water theft.

There needs to be a generational upheaval of water regulation in NSW, including much improved transparency. This need has been identified in many reports, including the Matthews Report.

The final Matthews report identified a risk that “certain important stakeholders” would put pressure on the process to maintain the status quo. HRD believes that is what irrigator groups have done.

We are witnessing the NSW Government continue to favour irrigation over First Nations and Environmental stakeholders:

“…the irrigator focus of the Department of Primary Industries – Water (DPI-W) was entrenched in its approach towards stakeholder consultation, which focused on the irrigation industry, while restricting information available to other stakeholders, such as environmental agencies. As a result, the policy-making process became vulnerable to improper favouritism, as environmental perspectives were sidelined from policy discussions.” [3]


[1] Interim Matthews Report – Independent investigation into NSW water management and compliance. Sept 2017.

[2] https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-05-06/chinese-state-owned-companies-buy-up-water-in-murray-darling/12215548

[3] NSW ICAC report Investigation into complaints of corruption in the management of water in NSW and systematic non-compliance with the Water Management Act 2000.

The future of western region water at a crossroads

The Dubbo Photo News – 7/1/2021

Mel Gray – Convenor Healthy Rivers Dubbo and the Wambuul Alliance.

People love rivers, and I am no different. Growing up on a vegetable farm on the Clarence River and camping on the Upper Clarence every year, the river was central to our lives. After moving to Dubbo in 2011 to be close to my family, I became involved in river habitat regeneration and learnt about the challenges facing the Wambuul-Macquarie River and the Northern Murray-Daring Basin.

I saw a need for voices in the Dubbo community that spoke on behalf of the river. Healthy Rivers Dubbo formed in 2017 after the shocking revelations from the Four Corners episode “Pumped”. Our group held several events in Dubbo to promote equitable water management, including a Town Hall meeting at the Garden Hotel, and a rally through town. My involvement in water management grew. I joined several groups and committees involving water management, threw myself into submission writing and built a social media presence.

Running a busy freelance bookkeeping practice, I had a choice to make. There was much that needed to be done to understand the complexities of water management, and it would take time. I made the decision to restructure my practice so that I could spend as much time as possible advocating for rivers, while still maintaining enough bookkeeping work to meet my expenses.  

Healthy Rivers Dubbo continued to evolve as a group, raising the profile of river management issues in the community and developing relationships with politicians and other river advocate groups in the Basin.

In 2018 plans were announced by the NSW Government to dam the Macquarie-Wambuul River again by building a large re-regulating structure at Gin Gin between Narromine and Warren. It wasn’t until November 2019 that WaterNSW consulted the general public and Healthy Rivers Dubbo was included in the consultation process.

Since then Healthy Rivers Dubbo has been overwhelmed by people and groups wanting to work together to oppose the project. It has been necessary for Healthy Rivers Dubbo to become the facilitator of a much broader “Wambuul Alliance”.

The future of the Macquarie-Wambuul River and the Ramsar listed Macquarie Marshes is at a cross roads. The gates on the planned Gin Gin re-regulating structure would be 8.5m high – that’s two and a half stories – and would back the river up for 32 km. It’s not surprising that the developer of the project and the Local Member for Dubbo are not being forthcoming about how enormous this structure would be. Once people learn the real nature of what is being proposed they are furious.

Many locals in the Mid-Macquarie area grew up camping and fishing at Gin Gin. The place holds generations of happy memories and cultural significance. If this project goes ahead, a popular camping and fishing site would be up to 8.5 metres under water, and a registered First Nations Site would be inundated.

There would be no coming back for river life including Murray Cod and Silver Perch after the loss of so much habitat. Recreational fishers would be packing their eskies and stocking up on supplies in other valleys, and not making the trip to the Macquarie. Kayakers would avoid traveling to the Macquarie if they knew a 32 km still weir pool lined with drowned red gums was ahead of them.

The internationally significant Macquarie Marshes have shrunk by up to two thirds since river regulation and over allocation. Despite being expertly managed with an ever shrinking bucket of publicly owned water, the fate of the wetlands would be sealed if the Gin Gin project went ahead.

The Wambuul Alliance understands the need for a sustainable irrigation industry and many recognise the potential for the Macquarie-Wambuul valley to be a food producing hot spot. However, right now there are serious problems in NSW with the rules that share water. The recent Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC) review into water management in NSW found the government favours large irrigation over all others and the environment in ways that go against its own laws.

The decision to plough tens of millions of dollars of public funds into a project that will only benefit large scale irrigation to the detriment of all others who have cultural, social and economic reliance on the river is yet another example of the unwarranted bias from NSW water agencies that the ICAC report highlights.

Faced with the decision of whether to allow the river to be turned into nothing more than an irrigation delivery channel, many in the community have come together and dug deep to support the Wambuul Alliance and oppose the Gin Gin re-regulating storage project. It has been a privilege to lend a hand.

Contact healthyriversdubbo@gmail.com