Your Say was heard! – Marshes and water birds to be considered in Macquarie dam EIS

** Impacts to the Ramsar listed Macquarie Marshes and migratory birds to be recognised as significant in Environmental Impact Statement! **

Public comment was recently invited on the EPBC Act referral for the Macquarie River re-regulating weir – which is a proposal to build another dam on the Macquarie River upstream from the Ramsar listed Macquarie Marshes.

This document will inform the Environmental Impact Statement for the project. WaterNSW prepared the referral, for the consideration of the federal environment department. In their proposal, WaterNSW considered that the impact of the new dam on the Macquarie Marshes and on migratory birds would not be significant.

Many of you prepared submissions, and disagreed with WaterNSW, instead identifying many ways that the dam would in fact have very significant impacts on the wetlands and the migratory birds that rely on them.

** YOU WERE HEARD! **

The environmental impact statement will now look closely at the significant impact the dam would have on the Macquarie Marshes and migratory birds.

Approved Referral

An alternative to the dam proposal was presented in the referral, that the current Gin Gin weir be replaced where it is – without the capability of creating a new dam. Any new structure would also have to incorporate a fishway. This would be a great outcome for the Wambuul Macquarie River!

 

The referral 2020-8652 – referral_Final produced by WaterNSW identified a lot of significant impacts that the dam is expected to have. Here’s a quick summary:

  • Reduced inflows into the Macquarie Marshes – small flows in dry years are critical to the Marshes.
  • 30km of river banks vegetation would be drowned.
  • Loss of habitat types such as riffle zones due to flooding and decreased water quality.
  • Loss of aquatic and river bank habitat for 30km.
  • Loss of snag habitat and spawning sites for vulnerable Murray Cod.
  • Native fish eggs would sink in the still water and die on the bottom of the river.
  • Fish in the area would have limited movement, even with the fishway, which is not enough to counteract the loss of habitat.
  • Loss of flowing river habitat.
  • The river banks will degrade and erode, land most likely will have to be lined with rocks for 30km – creating a sterile lifeless in channel dam.
  • Impacts to the groundwater recharge and groundwater dependent ecosystems.
  • Threats to native fish listed under the Fisheries Management Act – Eel-tailed catfish, Olive Perchlet Southern Spotted Purple Gudgeon, Silver Perch, Trout Cod as well as Murray Cod.
  • A registered Aboriginal heritage site will be inundated by the resulting weir pool.

 

It’s a dribble.

The Chair of Macquarie Food and Fibre, Tony Quigley spoke on ABC Central West Radio on Monday 11th May about the planned re-regulating weir at Gin Gin.

Tony explains (in his own words) that the giant structure will mean a loss to the environment and communities downstream of Gin Gin of the significant volume of 25 billion litres a year.

“… as irrigators we think there’s a real need for it, we think there is probably 25,000 megs a year that can be saved in the system that’s currently lost out the bottom to no real gain to the Marshes It’s a dribble all through the summer irrigation season. “

 

Macquarie water is sold before it falls as rain.

Burrendong empties at blistering speed.

The dam is massive – 1,188 billion litres. For context, Dubbo draws 8 billion litres a year to meet 70% of town water needs.

Burrendong has nearly bottomed out three times. In the summer of 2019/20 plans were in place to suck the dead water from the very bottom of the dam before letting the river below Burrendong dry up.

The river below Warren was allowed to dry up, followed by massive deaths of native fish, turtle, mussels, and other wildlife. People below Warren were left with no access to water from the river for their domestic and stock needs. It was a tough time.

Burrendong empties so quickly because the rules in the water sharing plan allow it to.

Water that has not yet fallen as rain over the Macquarie catchment is sold in advance.

The credit rule is essentially allocating clouds – water that hasn’t even fallen in the catchment yet,” said Celine Steinfeld, lead author of the paper published in the Journal of Hydrology, and also a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists. “It was clear that water in the Macquarie had been overallocated.” (SMH Clouds become water entitlements in ad hoc river plan, paper finds)

The NSW Government knows the Macquarie is over allocated. On page 89 of their 2014 State Infrustructure Strategy they explain that while Burrendong is one of the biggest dams in state, the irrigation industry has developed to a size where the natural capacity of the river has been exceeded. There is simply too much water being sucked out.

When working out how much water to sell every year, the NSW Government does not take into account any rainfall and inflow data from before 2004. They choose to only look at last centuries rainfall patterns when is was a lot wetter.

The re-regulating dam to make everything even worse

The NSW Government are planning to add to our problems by building a re-regulating dam at Gin Gin that will allow even more water to be extracted.

The purpose of the enormous gated dam is to get more control over water in the river and make more water available for general security users. The effect is to convert unregulated flow to regulated flow.

This dam will be a loss to the environment of about 25 billion litres a year, according to Tony Quigley, Chair of Macquarie Food and Fibre.

The most effective, common sense way to address water security issues in the Macquarie Valley is to look at the glaring problems with the rules in the water sharing plan, not to pour many tens of millions of public dollars into a monstrous structure that will only benefit a privileged few.

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.

What is happening on the Darling Baaka is cultural genocide.

wilcannia  ABC News April 2018, Wilcannia

 

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.

The Rains Came!

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.

Immediately, from the very first peak of the first flow, permission is given for water to be pumped under a licence type called “supplementary”. Supplementary access has the lowest priority of water access in the rules, and should only be allowed once critical human need, and stock and domestic requirements downstream had been met. However because the phrase FORECAST TO BE MET is in the rule, pumping was allowed. The critical environmental and human needs downstream were considered to be FORECAST to be met in several weeks time.

This anomaly means a type of take that should have the lowest priority, in real life gets the first water after a critical drought – before the environment and before humans.

The critical need for water in Macquarie Marshes after the worst drought in recorded history was ignored by NSW DPIE Water, who even ignored their own environmental water management team. See the Northern Basin First Flush Assessment Report

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

Healthy Rivers Dubbo has put together some available information to conservatively estimate the volumes involved:

  • From the Macquarie’s draft water resource plan, we know the the total on farm dam storage capacity in the valley is about 175 GL. Disregarding storage of off river schemes, and being very conservative, let’s say on farm dam storage close to the river that could catch water from the floodplain is about 70 to 90 GL.
  • Water from drought breaking flows that started in February didn’t reach the northern most part of the Marshes until late April.
  • When a third supplementary access event was announced in April, there was a relatively small amount of water extracted, indicating that the on-farm dams were already full of water.

It is likely that 70,000 to 90,000 megalitres of water was taken from the floodplain in the Macquarie from February to March 2020. For scale, Dubbo uses 8,000 megalitres a year from the river.

It was not until late April 2020 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. To the untrained eye (or those with conflicting vested interests), this spring the Marshes look green and healthy – but without the early arrival of the flows, damaging weeds like lippia have taken hold. How much of the 4,000 ha burnt reed bed will come back? Yet to be seen.

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.

 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