Northern Basin water wars will continue: Darling irrigator

EQUITABLE use of water in the Murry Darling Basin’s Barwon-Darling and lower Darling reaches is now a pipedream, despite the state government’s release of a policy to manage one facet of it, says Australian Floodplain Association president Justin McClure.

In Mr McClure’s part of the world, Kallara station, Tilpa, water means money, and there is a battle royal underway for the rights to it.

“If you hold the high ground in a war, you’re not going to give it up,” says Mr McClure, who irrigates organic milling oats from the Barwon-Darling system.

The oats are generally grazed by about 15,000 lambs and, depending on the season, harvested for Uncle Tobys.

“The Northern Basin irrigators, Namoi and Gwydir valley groups, control the watershed – what they can’t catch they consider waste, and there is no consideration for anyone else,” he said on Friday.

“The Barwon-Darling irrigators are next, they’ll be put to the sword for greed.”

That claim is dismissed by Gwydir Valley Irrigators executive officer Zara Lowien, who this week said: “There is no war being waged by us.”

Mr McClure said floodplain harvesters claiming their high-tech infrastructure used water more efficiently than allowing it to flow downstream and ‘evaporate’ was a form of conceit.

Mr McClure said Water Minister Melinda Pavey was trying to satisy two distinct groups of people – floodplain harvesters and the rest – but the weight of pressure on politicians and senior bureaucrats alike from the top end of the system was unbearable.

“The government has a history of leaving things to the minister’s discretion rather than enshrining details in legislation,” he said.

“When you look at the definition of minister, you’ll find it’s the department, and Melinda Pavey has in the past been blindsided by the structure of bureaucracy,” Mr McClure said.

He refers to much-publicised pumping and floodplain embargoes that were lifted in the middle of a flood event earlier this year, defying a ‘first flush’ compact that gives rivers’ connectivity and human needs priority over all else.

It was not Ms Pavey who signed a document that authorised the lifting of the embargoes from February 10 to 13 inclusive, but rather the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment acting executive director Vanessa O’Keefe.

That the department suggested the embargo was lifted to protect farm infrastructure was highly questionable, said Mr McClure.

He was hardly shocked at the time, he took it as further evidence of a power shift upstream carefully engineered by powerful irrigators.

By that time Mr McClure needed no more evidence powerful corporations backed by dedicated lobby groups were influencing both government policy and its interpretation.

Mr McClure, who could have begun pumping from the Darling in early March, left it until water had reached Menindee Lakes, out of respect for water users downstream who had nothing.

It is scenes such as this the Murray Darling Basin Plan hopes to submit to the annals of history.

 It is scenes such as this the Murray Darling Basin Plan hopes to submit to the annals of history.

HE SAID of the state government’s new floodplain harvest policy: “that it exists at all has set the ball rolling, but the detail, or lack of it, puts downstream users at risk”.

Big corporations have the luxury of playing a long game, lobbying governments and pushing out deadlines for metering, he said.

And the longer it is drawn out, the greater the claim to the water.

When it comes to floodplain harvesters: “The government is left open to claims of compensation (should water be taken away from existing irrigators) and a history of use gives credence to that argument.”

He draws attention to the fact floodplain harvest licences will be issued next year, and the lack of detail about how they will be defined.

Will they simply be licensed for what they can hold?

“Once these (floodplain harvesting licences) are issued, how do you reduce the take?” asked Mr McClure.

“The government would have to pay for any reduction.”

He said the corporations’ lobbying capacity couldn’t be matched by family farms.

Decision makers under pressure

“YOU’VE got this constant pressure, if it’s not the NSW Irrigators Council, it’s Namoi Valley irrigators, if it’s not Namoi then it’s Gwydir Valley irrigators, they’re all exerting pressure on our decision makers.

“They have full-time lobbyists for that.”

Mr McClure said irrigation had existed around Tilpa since the 1880s, his great grandfather had exported sultanas to Europe from Wilcannia, but there were other stations in Tilpa, Louth and Menindee that had licences to drought proof their operations at the time.

But those licences and any permanent plantations along the Barwon-Darling are becoming a thing of the past, he said.

Jessica Schifferle, from Berrigan, makes her thoughts clear about water during a 'Can the Plan' rally in Albury last year.

 Jessica Schifferle, from Berrigan, makes her thoughts clear about water during a ‘Can the Plan’ rally in Albury last year.

THERE is no better example of equity being transferred upstream than the “decomissioning” of Menindee Lakes in favour of a pipeline from Wentworth to Broken Hill, said Mr McClure.

Paul Dettore, G&M Fruits, is one of the survivors at Menindee since the region was, in his opinion, “screwed over”.

“Farmers literally walked off their farms, the land wasn’t rehabilitated, the dead vines are still standing there as our reminder of what went on – there was at least 400 hectares just abandoned,” said Mr Dettore.

For the past two years he has worked as a general assistant at two primary schools in Broken Hill, carrying out duties such as gardening and general maintenance to earn his entire income off farm.

That work, for which he considers himself fortunate, has given him time and breathing space to reassess his business and reinvest in a model based on about 30 per cent of the water once available.

New plan

MR DETTORE has given up on citrus, moved to stonefruit and maintains some table grapes.

He also gave up on following the political machinations of water policy “simply because of the stress of it all” about five years ago.

He said 10 years ago the Menindee region was home to five or six multi-million-dollar operations based on permanent plantations, all now gone.

“Menindee has been completely removed as a signficant player in table grapes – for which we were once famous – in fact any sort of major permanent plantation,” he said.

Table grapes from Menindee were once much sought after internationally.

 Table grapes from Menindee were once much sought after internationally.

“THEY should simply make it a rule that water does not have to be shared equally. If you’re not going to treat us fairly, make it the rule that we aren’t.

“We’re just a bookmark now.

“Water gets parked in Menindee, then once the snowmelt and catchment period downstream in the south is over they can let the water go without causing flooding downstream and facing legal consequences.”

Mr Dettore now works solely off his high-security water allocation of 60 megalitres.

Mr Dettore has scraped by on his smarts, he also has 272ML of general security water and said, chuckling: “Menindee used to be considered the most high security, low general security water in the state and people planted accordingly.”

He retired his citrus because they were at critical growth stage in the hottest months, but a move to stone fruits, harvested in November’s first weeks has eased summer water use.

He will persist with table grapes, the conditions around Menindee, the hours of daylight, its geographical removal from sources of disease and its dry air suit grapes.

Mr Dettore is one of the lucky ones, in that his business seems set to survive.

His situation was summed up by Murray Darling Basin Authority chief executive Phillip Glyde when questioned by the federal senate Rural Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee in March this year.

Winners and losers

SAID Mr Glyde: “The fact that there are fewer irrigators operating in the lower Darling – that is regrettable, that’s unfortunate, but we’re trying, and the whole reform is trying, to put the whole of the Murray-Darling system on a sustainable footing so that basically irrigators right across the basin are in a better position in the future than they might be now, but the inevitability of the reform is that there will be winners and losers, so in this particular case – and if you’re aware of how much water needs to be stored in Lake Menindee in order to provide the security of supply to the people in the lower Darling – it’s one of those consequences of the reform.”

That’s a cop out as far as water consultancy Slattery and Johnson principal Maryanne Slattery is concerned.

“The concept of winners and losers seems to have been accepted as the default reality, it has become accepted that some people have lost out.

“Menindee irrigators have received no compensation for their losses,” she said.

And Ms Slattery said the government seemed intent on creating licences it was going to “magic up” and people were expected to accept it.

Northern irrigators upbeat

UPSTREAM floodplain harvesters are rather more chipper about the new policy.

“The new requirements will come into effect from July 1, 2021 and NSW irrigators say bring it on,” said NSW Irrigators Council interim chief executive Claire Miller.

She said there would be caps declared for water users, though not where these water users would be located.

“The total volume that can be used will be capped at sustainable levels consistent with the Murray Darling Basin Plan,” she said.

“The policy uses the latest in telemetry and metering technology, and as an industry, we expect nothing less,” she said.

“If it can’t be measured, it can’t be managed – so now with firm metering requirements in place, the community will have more trust that floodplain harvesting is being managed at sustainable levels.”

Ms Miller highlighted the existence of the Natural Resources Access Regulator, an independent agency with “water police, with boots on the ground and satellites in the sky to ensure full compliance with water laws.

“The old days are gone, for good,” said Ms Miller.

Measuring depth is one of the problems faced by satellite monitoring.

 Measuring depth is one of the problems faced by satellite monitoring.

ONE limitation, say some observers, is that satellites can only measure the surface area of a storage, not the depth, meaning the volume stored cannot accurately be determined.

Gwydir Valley Irrigators’ Ms Lowien said the irrigation industry had embraced the coming changes to water use, particularly in relation to floodplain harvesting.

“And we look forward to the public appreciating also that the times have changed.”

“The measurement policy is an ambitious program but an important step forward in water management, as it sets out clear obligations for water users and accountability under the proposed licencing program,” said Ms Lowien.

“The policy will help to capture the missing facts on what is taken during a flood, giving confidence to the community that everyone receives their fair share of these events, no more or no less, and that NSW can continue to meet its obligations for the Basin Plan.

Measurement of take together with volumetric licencing of FPH (floodplain harvesting), will mean extractions will be capped and accounted for and NSW will have more management tools for better regulation,” she said.

“The reality for our region is that this will likely reduce future access, so it complies with historical levels. Meaning under a fully implemented FPH program, more water will remain on floodplains rather than less – or, more water will likely be available to pass Mr McClure’s farm under a fully implemented FPH policy rather than more recently.

“Everyone agrees, better regulation of overland flow is essential, industry and our communities everywhere demand it,” said Ms Lowien.

“It’s up to the NSW government to continue implementing all the pieces of the program, so the benefits from better regulation are realised for farmers everywhere and their communities.

What about sustainable diversion?

AN MDBA fact sheet about floodplain harvesting says as floodplain harvesting is metered and overall take is known, the plan’s sustainable diversion limit will have to be increased.

“This does not mean more water is available for use, this water is in use already – it is just ensuring that it is robustly measured and can be monitored to ensure use does not grow over time,” the MDBA said.


Article originally published in The Land, 10 August 2020 (link)