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

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 —

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.

Stygofauna – keeping groundwater clean for 200 million years.

Stygofauna are any fauna that live in groundwater systems or aquifers. They can be  crustaceans, worms, gastropods, beetles, mites and fish.

Never seeing the sun, they have no circadian rhythms. They grow slowly, don’t have many young, live long lives and stay close to home. Some are from extremely old lineages, with ancestors dating back to Gondwana and Pangaea or the Tethys Ocean, 200 million years ago. Some display a close relationship with species from other continents which indicates that their ancestors came from a time before the break-up of the
super continents.

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It is because of their characteristics born of their low-energy environment, and their incredible age, a lot of stygofauna species are extremely rare and localised.

Stygofauna contribute important ecosystem services by creating a nutrient cycle, and have been recognised as indicators of groundwater health. The stygofauna are small enough to wander among grains of sand in the sandstone aquifers, purifying the water by eating bacteria – playing a similar role to earthworms in soil.

Stygofauna are amazing because they are an inconspicuous but important component of World biodiversity. They represent outstanding examples of adaptation and ongoing evolutionary processes, and contain many ancient lineages of high scientific value and conservation significance.

We know stygofauna are not very mobile, so they make poor colonisers. This means that if all the creatures in one locality are wiped out, it is unlikely that others will quickly replace them.

Stygofauna are vulnerable to extinction from environmental changes and human impacts.

The Pilliga Sandstone Aquifer has been found recently to contain rare species of stygofauna. A survey of 22 sites within the Pilliga Sandstone aquifer conducted in 2016-17 reported a total of eleven taxa of invertebrates, which included ten families from five orders of stygofauna. The results showed stygofauna exist across the entire area.

They are classified as of High Ecological Value in the Pilliga, as the area is covered by the Lowland Darling Aquatic Endangered Ecological Community, listed under the Fisheries Management Act 1994.

#GasFreePilliga

Healthy Rivers Dubbo IPC submission Narrabri Gas Project

Outstanding issues within NSW’s Final Draft Water Resource Plans and consequences for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan – June 2020. Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists

Water Resource Plans (WRPs) outline how the management of water resources in a particular river catchment will be consistent with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. They set out the rules and arrangements relating to water take, environmental water (‘planned’ and ‘held’), managing water during extreme events and strategies to achieve water quality standards and manage risks. They also specify environmental objectives and watering requirements. WRPs include groundwater systems and surface water areas (rivers and creeks).
Catchment-specific water plans that are established under state legislation also need to be updated for consistency with the WRPs and requirements of the Basin Plan (i.e. Water Sharing Plans (WSPs) under the NSW Water Management Act 2000).

If the WRPs and WSPs are accredited in their current form, there is potential for significant consequences for river health and Ramsar-listed wetlands of international importance including the Gwydir wetlands and Macquarie Marshes, undermining the Basin Plan.

Read more: NSW-WRP-issues-and-safeguards

Dr Martin Mallen-Cooper comments on the new Macquarie dam at Gin Gin

The proposed Macquarie Re-regulating Structure would have a major negative impact on the river ecosystem, reducing biodiversity and reducing native fish populations.  There are four major impacts:

  1. Capture of tributary flows

All environmental water is not equal.  River flows that are uninterrupted by dams and weirs have extremely high ecological value, compared to flows that are stored in dams and weirs and re-released.

Uninterrupted river flows pick up nutrients (especially carbon such as dead eucalyptus leaves) and generate natural productivity of plankton, which is the essential food source of fish larvae.  This is the fundamental process of river ecosystems that sustains native fish populations.

If flow is uninterrupted over long distances, it has even greater ecological value as this enables fish that are a long distance downstream to detect the increasing flow (fish can sense the slightest increase in water velocity and have an extremely acute sense of smell) and migrate upstream to spawn so their larvae have greater survival.

The advantages of uninterrupted river flow are that: it occurs with a natural season; it has a natural rise and fall in river level; and it has natural, flowing water, hydraulics.  It also has no thermal pollution.  All these aspects contribute to these flows having high ecological value.

In the Macquarie Valley, tributary flows and rainfall events downstream of Burrendong Dam are one of the most valuable ecological assets that are presently sustaining native fish populations.  If the proposed regulator captures and re-regulates these tributary flows and main-stem flows that result from rainfall downstream of Burrendong Dam, native fish populations will have less successful breeding and populations will certainly decline.

The mitigation for this impact is to provide full transparency of tributary flows and rainfall downstream of Burrendong Dam.

 

  1. Impacts of variable water levels on river-edge and channel habitats

Tributary rivers of the northern Murray-Darling Basin have highly variable river levels, from floods to droughts.  However, these water levels vary over a very consistent regime over time – rising in floods but spending a lot of time at a low level with varying baseflows.  The time-scale and season of this variation is very important for fish.  Nesting species such as catfish and Murray cod establish a nest in spring and if the water level drops too much and/or too quickly they abandon the nest and there is no spawning that season[1].  This is an insidious impact as it does not become apparent until many years later as old fish die out and are not replaced by young fish.

Gin Gin Weir presently has a stable water level, while the new regulator will have highly varying water levels that will vary over short times scales within an irrigation season.  These are likely to impact breeding of Murray cod and catfish.

Under natural conditions in non-flood times, there are relatively stable water levels with occasional pulses of flow.  These conditions enable aquatic plants to develop in rivers, which contributes to the basis for the food chain, and ultimately fish survival and ongoing populations.  Regulators with highly varying water levels have weirpools that are characterised by barren banks and river channels, devoid of aquatic plants.  This breakdown of the aquatic food chain results in less food for native fish, reducing their health, resilience, and survival.

 

  1. Impacts on flowing-water habitats

Rivers have a natural mix of flowing and stillwater habitats.  Standing beside a healthy river, we all visually recognise flowing water and we recognise eddies, backwaters, pools and riffles – that is, healthy rivers have diverse river hydraulics (or hydrodynamics).

This hydraulic diversity provides habitat diversity and biodiversity.  There are aquatic animals and plants that specifically thrive in hydraulic diversity including: natural biofilms (fungi, algae, protozoa, bacteria), diatoms, plankton, aquatic insects, snails, mussels and fish.  The high biodiversity supported by hydraulic diversity supports a diverse food web, which contributes to resilience of the river ecosystem to withstand events such as droughts.

Weirs create backwater and pool-like conditions; where this happens and hydraulic diversity is reduced, biodiversity declines.  That is, some species become locally extinct – they cannot survive in the semi-permanent pool-like conditions.  Under natural conditions, prior to any dams or weirs, the Macquarie River could stop flowing and become a series of pools but only very rarely and for short periods of time.  Notably in 1902, in possibly the worst drought on record – the Federation Drought – when the Darling stopped flowing for 11 months at Menindee, the Macquarie River remained flowing the entire time.[2]

So flowing water habitats are a foundation of the Macquarie River ecosystem.

Two key species that thrive in flowing water are Murray cod and River mussel.  Murray cod are a valuable recreational fish and both species have high cultural and totemic value in aboriginal culture.  Many river mussels died in the last drought in the Darling River because there were no flowing water habitats for many, many months. Although adult Murray cod can survive in large pools, where there is good water quality, the survival of larvae and young fish is dependent on flowing water habitats and the diverse food webs that these provide.  Hence, to maintain the Murray cod population, flowing water and hydraulic diversity are essential to provide key nursery habitats.

The pool-like conditions that are created by weirs, not only reduce hydraulic diversity and biodiversity, but are also more favourable habitats for pest species like carp.

The proposed regulator will have three major impacts on flowing water:

  1. upstream of the regulator the backwater will be much greater than the present Gin Gin Weir, creating more still-water conditions and inundating Murray cod nursery habitats and River mussel habitat;
  2. as the level of the weirpool decreases upstream during the irrigation season, and more of the river channel is exposed, it will not have enough time to enable recolonisation of animals that specialise in this flowing-water habitat (e.g. aquatic insects, snails, mussels) – hence, critical food webs will not be established;
  • the regulator will capture tributary flows and local rainfall events – therefore passing less flow downstream which will directly reduce the extent and duration of flowing water conditions.

 

Dr. Martin Mallen-Cooper

 

 

[1] Stuart I., Sharpe C., Stanislawski K., Parker A. and Mallen-Cooper M. (2019) From an irrigation system to an ecological asset: adding environmental flows establishes recovery of a threatened fish species. Marine and Freshwater Research 70, 1295-1306.

[2] Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission (1956) ‘Surface Water Supply of New South Wales. Stream Flow Records Period to 31st December 1950. Volume 1.  Darling River Basin ‘ (V.C.N Blight, Government Printer: Sydney)

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.

wilcannia  ABC News April 2018, Wilcannia

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

What is happening on the Darling Baaka is cultural genocide.

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

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

troy Community tree planting day July 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

20190828_100555 resize Dead Red Gums, Macquarie Marshes August 2019

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

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

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

fire North Marsh reed bed, October 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Conclusion

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

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

The injustice of this is situation is intolerable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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