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‘Terrible’ new weir proposed for river as flows resume

Sydney Morning Herald

By Peter Hannam

A stoush is brewing on the state’s inland rivers over the proposal for a new weir that could reduce flows to the “degraded” Macquarie Marshes just as the wetlands start to recover from drought.

WaterNSW has begun consulting on a so-called re-regulating storage for the Macquarie River between Narromine and Warren in north-western NSW. The weir could store at least six billion litres and create a pool 30-60 kilometres long, potentially inundating river red gums and other ecosystems.

Ecologists, recreational fishers and some farmers worry that adding another dam to river flow would impede the recovery of endangered fish species already hard hit by the long dry spell over most of the region. Similar public works, proposed at the height of the drought, will move closer to construction in the months to come.

“It is another barrier in a system with many barriers to native fish and sediment and nutrient transport,” Richard Kingsford, director of the University of NSW’s Centre for Ecosystem Science, said.

“The Macquarie has one of the poorest populations of native fish in the Murray-Darling Basin, including the loss of some species.”

The dam would mean more reliable water for some irrigators but at the expense of water to the Macquarie Marshes, “one of the three most degraded Ramsar sites in the Murray-Darling Basin”.

A Ramsar site is a wetland site designated to be of international importance under a UNESCO treaty from the 1970s.

Matt Hansen, president of Inland Waterways, said another fish barrier would be “terrible for the river”, adding that “we have had catastrophic fish kills in so many different rivers” during the drought.

The weir on that part of the river, at Gin Gin, was already “one of the worst barriers to fish and an absolute crime”, Mr Hansen said.

WaterNSW said the project would involve the “consideration” of the future of the Gin Gin weir, including an investigation of whether it should partially or fully decommissioned.

A spokesman for WaterNSW said any new “gated weir and fishway structure” on the river would need the development of a detailed business case, which is due for completion by August, and then an environmental impact study by the year’s end.

“The re-regulating structure will enhance the overall efficiency of river operations by reducing transmission losses,” the agency said.

Garry Hall, a grazier whose property includes part of the Macquarie Marshes, said “a few small flows” had made it to the wetlands.

Mr Hall said he was keen to take part in another round of stakeholder meetings planned for later this month. He was concerned, though, with the weir’s structure and “opportunities for protocols that could undermine” whatever pledges the government made to secure its approval.

Professor Kingsford said the planned weir would struggle to meet approval under the federal government Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act.

“I would be surprised if it would get the approval given the state of the Macquarie Marshes,” he said, adding the longer term effect would be felt the next time conditions dried up again.

“These projects will certainly make the droughts worse for our environmental assets such as the Macquarie Marshes and also downstream graziers.”

 

‘Terrible’ new weir proposed for river as flows resume

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

Submission to Floodplain Harvesting Amendment Dec 2020 – Healthy Rivers Dubbo

Submission Proposed legislative amendments for floodplain harvesting 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.

HRD supports the licencing and regulation of floodplain harvesting, however the impact of floodplain harvesting on the environment, First Nations communities and cultural values and downstream river communities must be assessed. HRD is pleased to have the opportunity to provide comment on the proposed legislative amendments for floodplain harvesting in NSW.

HRD objects to the four proposed amendments to the Water Management (General) Regulation 2018.

Floodplain harvesting (FPH) has had a significant impact on the resilience of the lower Darling-Bakka River, and of the tributary rivers that feed the Darling-Baaka where floodplain harvesting is concentrated – the Gwydir, Border Rivers, Barwon, Namoi and Macquarie.

Increasingly since 1994, FPH has denied significant volumes of water to floodplains, wetlands, aquifers, creeks and rivers. Denying these flows to the environment has resulted in landscapes being less resilient in dry times, and is a contributing factor to the Barwon and Darling Rivers ceasing to flow in November 2020.

Floodplain harvesting was mentioned as a contributing factor to the Menindee fish kills in the Independent assessment of the 2018-19 fish deaths in the lower Darling (Vertessy report)[1] and the SA Royal Commission into water management in the Murray Darling Basin. FPH was identified as a factor to the Barwon-Darling River being called an ecosystem in crisis in the Natural Resources Commission review of the Barwon Darling Water Sharing Plan in 2019.[2]

The significant and increasing impact that FPH has had on downstream environments, First Nations communities and critical human need requirements must be assessed before the hand out of several billions of dollars of tradable, compensable, mortgageable property rights in the form of FPH licences. As the Environmental Defenders Office and the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists recently published “…conferring permanent property rights to irrigators is a windfall transfer of public wealth that should be considered only once public good outcomes can be guaranteed.”[3]

The recent NSW ICAC investigation into water management[4] recommended:

That the DPIE publicly records:

• its water strategy, objectives and priorities for the use and management of NSW’s water resources in a manner consistent with the mandatory duty in s 9 of the WMA

• the need to ensure the water management principles in s 5, and in particular those that relate to sharing, as set out in s 5(3) of the WMA, are all given effect. Section 9 of the WMA should also inform relevant key departmental records, including agency policies, guidelines and role descriptions, concerning the management of NSW water resources.

The report highlighted what environmental stakeholders, graziers and communities along the Darling-Baaka have long understood – that the NSW DPIE Water (the department) make decisions that favour irrigation at the expense of First Nations cultural values, stock and domestic and critical human need requirements and the environment. ICAC found this bias comes from “a misguided effort to redress a perceived imbalance caused by the Basin Plan’s prioritisation of the environment’s needs”.

Environmental stakeholders have not seen any shift in this mindset from the department in recent times. An accidentally released email chain recently bought to light that members of the department have ‘regular catch-ups’ with NSW Farmers Association, NSW Irrigators Council and the Murray Darling Association. This sounds like a working alliance. Healthy Rivers Dubbo has only been involved in one environmental stakeholder briefing by the floodplain harvesting team.

The bias towards irrigation that informs decisions made by the department, as detailed in the ICAC report, is still evident in the four proposed rule changes to the Water Management (General) Regulation 2018.

1.         Water Management (General) Amendment (Floodplain Harvesting Exemption) Regulation 2020

This regulation seeks to exempt floodplain harvesting works from the requirement under the Water Management Act 2000 (WMA) to hold a water access licence and water supply work approvals.

HRD strongly objects to this amendment and the exemptions it would provide.

No FPH works should be granted approvals exemption before the implementation of metering, the granting of licences and the rules for FPH are set in the relevant Water Sharing Plans.

Water that has been taken by FPH has been counted as environmental water for modelling purposes. All we know about the types of volumes that are taken is that they are significant, and that the environment has been denied these significant volumes for decades. HRD has serious concerns about the modelling and accounting of the long-term annual average flows to the environment in each NSW Northern Basin Valley. HRD believes the NSW Government has a responsibility to assess the volumes and impacts of decades of FPH on the rivers of the Northern NSW Murray Darling Basin.

2.         Water Management (General) Amendment (Exemption for Rainfall Run-off Collection) Regulation 2020

HRD strongly opposes the granting of exemption to licence of rainfall runoff.

This exemption grants an unfair privilege to irrigation over other land holders, and again is an example of the misguided endeavours of the department to adjust their decision making to favour the irrigation over other stakeholders and the environment, as per the ICAC report. 

The volume suggested as rainfall runoff exemption in the Border Rivers Water Sharing Plan rules was larger than the volume that was designated to be returned to the environment. This exemption makes a mockery of the FPH licencing process.

Currently rainfall runoff is accounted for as Planned Environmental Water and modelled as remaining in the rivers. Not licencing this water is an erosion of Planned Environmental Water, which is against the objectives of the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

Rainfall runoff from irrigation fields that is contaminated and kept and used on farm that is above the 10% harvestable right must be licenced.

3.         Water Management (General) Amendment (Floodplain Harvesting Measurement) Regulation 2020

HRD is supportive of FPH works needing to be fitted with compliant metering, data logging and telemetry equipment and tamper-proof seals that needs to be fitted by a ‘duly qualified person’.

We object to a transition period for storages less than 1,000 megalitres or with infrequent use until 1st July 2022. All equipment must be installed and compliant by 30 June 2021.

We strongly object to a clause that allows the Minister to exempt an approval holder or a class of approval holders from the application of mandatory metering. If diversions cannot be measured and recorded, they should not have approval.

If metering equipment if faulty, no floodplain harvesting take should be allowed.

4.         Water Management (General) Amendment (Floodplain Harvesting) Regulation 2020

HRD is supportive of FPH take being licenced, however the debt owed to the environment from decades of unmeasured significant volumes of take must be assessed before licences are handed out.

HRD is concerned about the modelling data that is being used to calculate the Border Rivers draft Water Sharing Plan rules. We have no confidence in the 94 ‘cap’ figures being presented, as there is no clear line of site to the accredited cap reports to the presented figures.

By their nature floods usually occur when the environment and downstream users are desperate for water. This will coincide with on farm storages being empty, and if the department has its way, account balances many times the face value of the entitlement. FPH licences should not be issued until adequate downstream targets and rules that protect first flush events are in place.

Conclusion

As of December 2020 the Barwon-Darling Rivers have ceased to flow at Brewarrina and Bourke. Substantive volumes taken by FPH in Feb and March 2020 played a part in the rivers having little resilience in warm dry times.

Overland flows in the Northern NSW Murray Darling Basin from December 2020 to 30 June 2021 must be allowed to pass for the sake of the Ramsar wetlands, aquifers, First Nations communities and cultural values, struggling native fish populations, stock and domestic needs and critical human need.

The NSW Government must manage water extraction under the core requirements of the Water Management Act 2000. This includes the water sharing principles and associated duties imposed on decision makers to uphold them (ss. 5 and 9 of the Act).

This exemption amendment has been disallowed twice already by the NSW Legislative Council. In the light of the findings of the recent ICAC report, it is time for the department to assess the decision making processes that continually shows an unreasonable level of privilege and advantage to irrigation over other stakeholders.

For more information contact

Melissa Gray

Convenor

Healthy Rivers Dubbo

healthyriversdubbo@gmail.com


[1] https://www.mdba.gov.au/publications/mdba-reports/independent-panel-assess-fish-deaths-lower-darling

[2] Final report Review of the Water Sharing Plan for the Barwon-Darling Unregulated and Alluvial Water Sources 2012 September 2019

[3]https://www.edo.org.au/2020/12/09/floodplain-harvesting-without-the-necessary-protections-legal-action-is-a-risk/

[4] Independent Commission Against Corruption INVESTIGATION INTO COMPLAINTS OF CORRUPTION IN THE MANAGEMENT OF WATER IN NSW AND SYSTEMIC NON-COMPLIANCE WITH THE WATER MANAGEMENT ACT 2000

Floodplain Harvesting in NSW- make a quick online submission

Four changes are being proposed to the NSW Water Management (General) Regulation 2018 Act relating to Floodplain Harvesting.

These changes have already been disallowed by the NSW Legislative Council twice.

Please make a quick online submission objecting to these changes here

3. Do you support the proposed amendments to give effect to floodplain harvesting licence determination?

No

4. Do you support the proposed amendments to give effect to the Floodplain Harvesting Measurement Policy?

No

5. Do you support the proposed floodplain harvesting transitional exemption?

No

6. Do you support the proposed exemption for tailwater drains?

No

7. Attachments to support your submission.

Attach any additional information in document form – optional

If you’d like more information go to the Departments website here

If you’d like to email a more detailed submission to floodplain.harvesting@dpi.nsw.gov.au download our simple submission guide here.

— THANK YOU —

Concern in Mudgee for the future of the Macquarie Marshes

The planned re-regulating dam on the Macquarie River at Gin Gin would be a death knoll for the internationally recognised Ramsar listed Macquarie Marshes.

Worried about the future of the famous bird breeding wetlands, some Mudgee locals had a chance to chat with Dugald Saunders MP about the fast tracked Gin Gin project.

Mr Saunders was happy to stop and hear concerns from locals about how the project would take water from the environment’s share and make it available for extraction.

Current estimates are that between 14,000 and 25,000 megalitres of water on average every year will be taken from the river upstream of the Ramsar wetlands as a result of the Gin Gin project.

This water is critical for the health of the Marshes.

Media Release – Old habits die hard in NSW water management.


The future of the 250 million year old Darling-Baaka River is being decided now as the NSW
Government develops rules about how much water can be diverted off floodplains before it reaches
the river.

Floodplain harvesting diverts water that either falls as rain or breaks over the river bank into private
dams with levee banks. Floodplain harvesting dehydrates floodplains, wetlands and aquifers, and was
identified by several reports as a key contributor to the mass fish kills in the Lower Darling last year.

Under proposed new licencing rules, the NSW Government wants to gift those who harvest water
from floodplains with an initial allowance to take five times their share of water. Further to that, the
river would owe those who harvest water from floodplains a full entitlement’s worth of water every
single year, whether it floods or not.


It would be close to impossible for the river to provide all of the water that it ‘owes’ water harvesters.
ICAC’s recent scathing findings on water management in NSW identify that there is a “lengthy history
of failure in giving proper and full effect to the objects principles and duties of the Water
Management Act and its priorities for water sharing.” The rules proposed for managing floodplain
harvesting in NSW prove that nothing looks like changing.


Quotes attributable to Melissa Gray, Convenor of Healthy Rivers Dubbo
“It is ludicrous for the NSW Government to pretend it is limiting the volume of water that can be
diverted from the floodplains. By the time a flood happens, these generous rules would mean the only
limit to the volume of water that can be taken is how much can be physically held, which is enormous.


“The impact that floodplain harvesting has had over the decades in dehydrating and weakening the
rivers, wetlands and aquifers of the Northern Basin needs to be assessed before the hand out of
tradable, mortgageable, compensable new property rights worth an estimated $1 to $2 billion.


“ICAC have confirmed what we in the Basin have known for a long time, that the NSW Government
department that manages water makes decisions about rivers that favour large irrigators over First
Nations People, grazing communities, recreational fishers, small irrigators and water security for places
like Dubbo, Walgett, Brewarrina, Bourke and Wilcannia – not to mention the environment.


“The Basin Plan asks governments to put the environment first. NSW Government water managers
have not been able to do that. Unless we ensure the rivers, wetlands and aquifers get enough water to
be resilient through tough droughts, we will all fail.”

For comment contact
Mel Gray
0431 471 310

Download Media Release Here

Healthy Rivers Dubbo Submission Border Rivers Floodplain Harvesting Rules

How the Wambool-Macquarie became over allocated – Terry Korn

Floodplain Harvesting diversions are not included in this article.

HEALTHY RIVERS – HEALTHY COMMUNITIES Terry Korn, Australian Floodplain Association.

There are few things more contentious than water! And this is very apparent at present as we debate the future of water management in the Murray Darling Basin.

Underpinning the debate is everyone’s concern for the future and what a changed water environment will mean for them and their family, their business and their grandchildren. Questions arise such as: Will it mean less food production? Will it mean more expensive food? Will it mean healthier rivers with more productive floodplains and wetlands and no net change in food production? Will communities survive? How can we manage with less water and how will we share the water in a fair and equitable way? Will future generations say we were wise, that we heeded lessons of the past, that we were considerate and caring about both people and the environment? So many questions and no easy answers!

I think it is important to step back to understand how this happened and make sure we do not repeat history, as so often happens. The Macquarie Valley is an example of the mismanagement of New South Wales water resources by a succession of governments and water agencies over the last 40 years.

When Burrendong dam was completed in 1966/67 the yield of the Macquarie River was assessed as 406000Megalitres (ML). That is roughly 406000 Olympic swimming pools.  By 1978 the water users in the valley, most of whom were irrigators (agriculture uses about 80% of the allocated water), advised the Water Resources Commission (WRC) that the river was over allocated and an embargo should be placed on the issue of future water licenses. In 1979 the WRC introduced the embargo but at the same time raised the annual estimated yield of the river to 475000ML and continued to issue licenses so that permissible extraction rose to 497500ML.

Original licenses stipulated the area of land that could be irrigated but not the volume of water used. To remedy this anomaly, volumetric allocations were introduced. This system apportioned volumes of water (Megalitres/hectare) to a property and the property owner then decided how the water could be most productively used. Other valleys in NSW were allocated 6ML/ha but the Macquarie Valley was allocated 8ML/ha for irrigators on river schemes. For Off River schemes the standard 6ML/ha was agreed.  By 1985 the total allocated water was 612000ML of which 452000ML was for riparian irrigators and 160000ML for off river schemes. As the revised estimated long term average yield of the river was 475000ML the Macquarie was now over committed by 137000ML more than the revised yield of 475000ML and 206000ML more than the original yield of 406000ML.

It gets worse! In 1985 allocations to existing licenses were increased by about 13000ML despites concerns and objections from stakeholder groups. From then to now the allocations for extractive use have risen to 738000ML for the Macquarie/Cudgegong system (the Cudgegong River flows into Burrendong Dam from the Mudgee area). An additional 160000ML was also allocated to the environment despite the fact it was obvious the already over allocated rive could not yield the 160000ML. The total allocation of regulated and supplementary flow water for the system is therefore now the grand total of 898793ML, almost double the revised estimated 1979 yield of 475000ML¹.

With such mismanagement the damage is widespread, indiscriminate and long lasting!

As the river became more over allocated and water was harvested freely from the floodplains, less and less water was available for overland flows and recharge of wetlands. Floodplains below Warren now receive fewer and smaller floods. The many floodplain graziers and croppers in the valley have had production reduced by 30-50% as a result. These are the industries on which valley communities were initially established and survived during the last drought when little or no water was available for large scale irrigation. They deserve better than that!

The significant irrigation industry suffers because the Macquarie Valley now has a 50% reliability of supply which is no better than chance. This is not a good foundation on which to base a high cost industry such as cotton, a major product of the valley. Nor does it provide surety for those families, businesses and communities who rely heavily on the irrigation industry. They deserve better than that!

 And what sort of environment will we leave for future generations? Our wetlands which provide ecosystem services and support a great diversity of plants and animals have decreased in number and size. They have been radically changed by the fewer and smaller floods which are now the norm. The environment deserves better than that!

The question then arises: “How can we manage with the 475000ML of river yield so that it is shared in a fair and equitable way between industry and the environment without unduly impacting on local communities?”

This is where the debate now sits and the Federal Government has established the Murray Darling Basin Authority to develop and implement a plan for a basin which contains 22 other major river valleys. But do this task it must, otherwise in 15 years time we will face the same debate with even greater environmental damage and community adjustment.

The Macquarie River is so over allocated there is no easy solution and there will be impacts. Already progress has been made with the government buying water from willing sellers. It has secured more than 50% of what is required to service environmental needs in the valley. Further purchases need to be made and more savings will be made through changes to irrigation infrastructure.

 I am confident the innovative irrigators of the Macquarie Valley will meet this challenge. It is essential that the non irrigation floodplain producers see justice through the restoration of much of their lost production. Running parallel with productive floodplains is a robust and resilient environment to support future generations. The sensible sharing of resources and resultant diversity of production will give us a healthy river. A healthy river will give us a healthy community!

¹ Note – all figures are from: 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

Water for the environment working hard in the Wambuul Macquarie Valley.

Wise use of publicly owned water for the environment in the 2018-2019 water year helped vegetation in the core 10% of the struggling Macquarie Marshes hold on through the extreme drought of 2017-2019.

The rains in February 2020 came just in time to provide relief to the burnt North Marsh reed bed – however some fumbling in NSW agencies meant that the first flows weren’t protected for the environment, and significant volumes of water were allowed to be pumped and diverted from the river.

As a result, parts of the Ramsar listed wetlands turned green with noxious weeds, looking healthy to the untrained eye – but only flood water can heal a wetland. It wasn’t until late April 2020, when the growing days were shortening, that flows finally reached the northern part of the Marshes and the Lower Macquarie.

The start of the new water year as of 1st July 2020 saw some water that had been allocated to customers in 2016 finally turn up in the dam and be available, followed by some more flows. Time to get some important flows into the valley for native fish recovery and vegetation in the Macquarie Marshes.

The first part of the flow was designed to support Gugabul- Murray Cod on the nest.

And success!

Despite a hiccup with the cold water pollution control curtain in Burrendong which sent chilly 12 degree water down the river, NSW DPI – Fisheries detected Murray cod larvae in the Trangie area in mid-October. Based on larval ages, hatching of eggs began at the start of October.

The timing and duration of flows to the Macquarie Marshes is also critical for the recovery of this internationally significant wetland system. Plants in core wetland areas typically need 2–3 months of inundation over the post-frost months to allow them to flourish. This gives them a better chance to out-compete weeds such as lippia and noogoora burr.

With the landscape becoming drier, river operations getting tighter and the volumes of water available to fill water orders rapidly decreasing, environmental water managers are doing an excellent job supporting aquatic life in Wambuul.

WaterNSW principle objectives – comment

Setting objectives is a powerful tool for organisations. Over time, objectives create and
reinforce corporate culture. The objectives of an organisation inform decisions management
make around hiring and training staff. They are the force behind the motivation of the
organisations’ employees.

As the operator of 42 dams across NSW supplying two thirds of the water used in NSW,
WaterNSW has a critical role to play in the health and resilience of the rivers of NSW.

Every action WaterNSW performs affects the environment. The modification of rivers has had
significant impacts on groundwater aquifers, floodplains, wetlands a well as the rivers
themselves.

The culture within the state owned corporation when it comes to prioritising environmental
objectives is therefore very important.

Compliance with the principles of ecologically sustainable development should feature highly in the principle objectives of the state owned corporation, not at the very end of the secondary objectives.

Read Healthy Rivers Dubbo submission to the review of the WaterNSW Act 2014.

Priority One – irrigation. Not environment. Not people.

You would be right to believe that critical environmental and human needs for water have the highest priority to access to water in the rules that manage the Wambuul-Macquarie River… on paper, yes, the environment has the highest priority. But in reality, on the ground, the rules are applied in such a way so that irrigation gets looked after first – even after last summers crippling drought.

Supplementary access was announced – when the first flows arrived in the Macquarie in mid February 2020, the peak of the first flows was allowed to be pumped. The critical environmental and human needs downstream were ignored.

Floodplain harvesting is enormous – the diversion of overland flows into private dams by levy’s – held back an unknown, unmeasured volume of water. So much water, that flows that began in February didn’t reach the northern parts of the burnt North Marsh reed bed until the end of April. Healthy Rivers Dubbo conservatively estimates from the pieces of information available that around 70 to 90 GL ( 1 GL = 1 billion litres) was taken from the floodplains in the Macquarie this year (for scale Dubbo uses 8 GL a year from the river).

Remember the summer of 2019/20 in the Macquarie Valley?

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

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.

Dead Red Gums, Macquarie Marshes August 2019

Critical human need and stock and domestic requirements were not being met along the River and creeks downstream of Warren. 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 4,000 ha was burnt. The reed beds needed flood water ASAP. While the reeds shot up after some rain fall that summer, they were using what little precious reserves their rhizomes held, making floodwater even more critical to their recovery.

North Marsh reed bed, October 2019

The Drought Breaks

The flows 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.

Shockingly, the first announcement of supplementary access was made on the 20th February, leading to over 12 GL being pumped from the vital first flow peak. The peak of the flow was taken, that meant that the area of wetland that potentially could have been inundated by the first flow was greatly reduced.

The shape of the hydrograph matters. The same volume of water flowing down the river over longer period of time wouldn’t have had the same potential to inundate as many hectares as the water arriving in one peak flow. The value of the peak of the flow to the environment in this circumstance was exponentially higher than the same volume of subsequent inflows at lower daily flow rates.

From a combined total of 84 GL flow at the Baroona gauge near Narromine, by 5 March 2020, 22.3 GL of this first flow had been recorded at Marebone Weir, with only 7 GL reaching the northern Macquarie Marshes.

Some of the flow was diverted by WaterNSW to other streams to meet stock and domestic replenishment flows, and some was extracted under a supplementary announcement. Much of the flow also performed a valuable role of soaking into alluvial aquifers and soils, filling pools in the river and meeting riparian needs for stock and domestic supply under basic landholder rights. An unknown volume was diverted by levys, and even more water was prevented from entering the river from floodplain harvesting.

By 1/3/2020, not even 1,200 ha of the 4,000 ha burnt North Marsh Reed bed had been inundated.

Timing matters. The reed bed needed to get that flood water as early as possible, so they could take advantage of the warmer summer days and get some growth up to store energy in their rhizomes for winter. It was not until late April 2020 that flood water finally made it to the northern most part of the charred reed bed, and into the Lower Macquarie River.

Because of the delay in flows reaching all of the fire damaged reed bed, the requirement for environmental water in the Macquarie Marshes was still classified as HIGH as of autumn 2020.

Why was supplementary access allowed?

Supplementary access has the lowest priority of water access, and should only be allowed once critical human need, and stock and domestic requirements downstream had been met. 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).

By tweaking a rule, allowing critical need to be forecast, the peak of the very first flow after the drought broke was given the highest priority. Lucky for everyone it rained again……

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.

How much water does floodplain harvesting take in the Macquarie?

A LOT!!

Source: NSW Govt, Floodplain Harvesting Measurement Policy March 2020.

Floodplain Harvesting takes water from the floodplain for free, the volumes are unmeasured and therefore unknown. 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.

Of course, this is an estimate, as the government still does not provide this information publicly. It could be even more then that.

I’ll just leave this here… last permanent trades in the Macquarie were $1,900 a ML, temporary trades were $200 a ML.

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.

The real impact of the drought breaking flows being held back will be a scar on the landscape for many years.