Questions around the water operations of some large cotton growers and irrigators in the north-west of NSW saw Inverell district resident Mal Peters interviewed on the ABC Four Corners program on Monday about his concerns for the future of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan (MDBP).
Speaking to the Inverell Times this week, Mr Peters, a former head of the Farmers Association NSW and former chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority's Northern Basin Advisory committee, said questions surrounded rules and practices in the Barwon-Darling catchment area.
According to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, the area takes in the Barwon River, from upstream of Mungindi at the confluence of the Macintyre and Weir rivers, to where the Barwon meets the Culgoa River. At this point the river channel becomes the Darling River and the Barwon–Darling system extends downstream to the Menindee Lakes.
The Barwon-Darling area is one of the seven geographical valleys that comprise the NSW section of the MDBP which also includes regions in the ACT, Victoria and South Australia.
But along the Barwon-Darling River the rules allow irrigators to legally extract greater amounts of water.
Mr Peters said these irrigators are allowed to take the same amount of water from the river system regardless of its flow level.
“There’s a seasonal pattern in the river levels that means it runs low, or the bed is dry, about one in every three years,” he said.
“But the license allowance is calculated on the average flow over 100 years and it isn’t adjusted for seasonal variations. That allows for massive water extraction in years of low flows.”
Similarly, the legal size of the water extraction pumps in the Barwon-Darling area were also increased from water pumps that were six inches to pumps that were 28 inches.
These changes were introduced to the Barwon-Darling section of the MDBP in 2012 after the plan went on public display and before it was approved by the NSW Government for implementation.
“Every valley has its rules but it was only in the Barwon-Darling that these problems emerged,” Mr Peters said. “No one knows why they were changed so drastically in favour of a few irrigators.”
Mr Peters said the overall MDBP was not adjusted to account for these increased water extraction rates and the rules appear to give significant financial advantage to a handful of irrigators at the expense of other irrigators, especially those adhering to smaller water amounts upstream.
“That’s undermining the effectiveness of the whole Murray-Darling Basin Plan,” he said.
The Four Corners program also claimed that reports from government inspectors about possible tampering with water metres by major Barwon-Darling irrigators, were not investigated.
The Murray-Darling river system starts in southern Queensland, flows across most of NSW, west of the Great Dividing Range, and the ACT, then down into parts of Victoria and South Australia.
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan was introduced as a joint agreement between these states and the ACT in 2012.
The reforms needed to establish the plan cost $12.7 billion in federal funds to implement.
The plan aims to ensure the survival and fair distribution of water resources along the length of the Murray-Darling system upon which a vast array of wildlife, almost 40 percent of Australia’s agricultural production and two million people, depend.