AS MENINDEE locals call for a Royal Commission into the Murray Darling Basin Authority, water allocations and the politics of water policy, the state Labor leader has the Liberal-National coalition in his sights.
State opposition leader Michael Daley has called for a “special commission of inquiry” into the fish kill near the Menindee Lakes in which a million fish may have died.
“Mature fish that survived decades of droughts could not survive the Liberal-Nationals’ water policy,” he said on Thursday.
But Water Minister Niall Blair, no doubt treading a tightrope of public opinion has dismissed Mr Daley’s claims as mere rhetoric.
“It’s clear from their various statements over the last few days that NSW Labor knows nothing about regional NSW and how the Murray Darling Basin system works,” he said.
In response to this week’s fish kill Mr Blair travelled to Menindee, faced dismayed locals flanked by police, ordered an urgent report into the incident and pledged state government assistance for Central Darling and Wentworth councils.
In turn, Mr Daley drew attention to what he referred to as “industrial scale water theft” on the Darling River, referring to “changes to water rules that reduced river flows and allowed the over-extraction of water by lobbyist irrigators who were National Party donors”.
He specifically referred to “former Primary Industry Minister Katrina Hodgkinson, (who) changed the Barwon-Darling water management rules to allow irrigators to extract 32 per cent more water”.
Mr Blair said Mr Daley’s comments demonstrated a lack of understanding of water regulations and ignored extraction limits set down in the Water Act 2007.
He also pointed out the establishment of the Natural Resources Access Regulator in the wake of ABC reports last year that implicated state government bureaucrats in allegedly spurious water access negotiations.
In 1938 an agreement was struck between the Broken Hill Water Board and the state government – then led by the United Australia Party’s Sir Bertam Stevens – to build a water storage at Menindee.
Before work could begin on the ambitious scheme World War II began and it wasn’t until the 1950s an appetite for such major infrastructure works returned.
The modification of the once entirely ephemeral Menindee Lakes in the 1950s and 60s shored up Broken Hill’s water supply, making the lakes the largest water storage on the Darling River.
It has always been controversial because the lakes are shallow and evaporation accounts for the loss of large volumes of water.
But the state government is currently building a pipeline between Wentworth, in the state’s south west on the Murray River, and Broken Hill, to create an alternative permanent water supply for the city.
This would then mean the Menindee Lakes would no longer be essential to Broken Hill’s survival.
It is not a popular move in the Far West, some landholders between Wentworth and Broken Hill have told The Land the pipeline will mark the “death knell” for the Menindee Lakes.
Mr Daley questioned why the government would persist such a move and said Labor would shelve it because it would destroy fish breeding grounds in the Darling River.
Yet the state government is selling the project as ensuring a reliable water supply for Broken Hill and maintaining water levels in the Menindee Lakes.
And the $457 million pipeline is largely complete, say locals, and the budget consequences of reversing the plan at this stage are unknown.
Shooters, Fishers and Farmers MP Robert Borsak on Friday said blame should be laid squarely at the government’s feet for the fish kill.
“I’ve read a lot of angst on social media, blaming farmers, especially those in cotton and rice,” he said.
“We need to remember governments are the ones who decide who takes water from the river and how much they can take.”
He said irrigators have been severely restricted for two years.
“The amount of water irrigators take from the river is miniscule to what’s being flushed to South Australia for so-called environmental purposes.”
Mr Borsak said if anyone but the government was responsible for the latest fish kill they’d be going to jail.
“We can demand a Royal Commission into water mismanagement,” he said, echoing calls from frustrated Menindee locals.
National Irrigators’ Council chief executive Steve Whan has called for factual discussion and planning, suggesting that is the only way fish kills such as last week’s can be avoided.
“It is always difficult to see large fish kill events whether they are from drought, algal events or black water,” said Mr Whan.
“Unfortunately, in nature they are not always avoidable but we should do our best to minimise their occurrence.
“That’s why the Murray Darling Basin Plan is important.
“It’s about managing a scarce resource, shifting water from agriculture to the environment and responding to times of drought,” he said.
“No one wants to see the sort of fish kills and very poor water quality that we are seeing in Menindee and in other areas along the river system, but ill-informed scapegoating of irrigators will do nothing to help avoid it in future.”
Mr Whan said management of the Menindee Lakes is a legitimate area for discussion.
“Many people were concerned about the rapid release of water from the lakes – but it needs to be clear that release was not for irrigators, it was to meet the Basin Plan commitments including flows through the Murray mouth,” he said.
“Over the past couple of years far more water has gone from the Menindee Lakes from evaporation than has been extracted by irrigators on unregulated rivers.
“That’s why it is important to have a sensible and rational discussion about whether reconfiguration of the man-made storage at Menindee Lakes could save evaporation and improve reliability of lower Darling flows.”
Mr Whan said irregardless what side of the argument anyone came from it was undeniable that Bureau of Meteorology figures for the past 21 months for most of the Upper Darling catchment rated rainfall deficiencies as “serious”, “severe” or “worst on record”.
WaterNSW, the body responsible for the physical release of licence holders’ allocations said by far the largest licenced water holder in NSW is government, a combination of state and federal tiers.
And should Menindee Lakes be holding more than 480 gigalitres of water, the Murray Darling Basin Authority may call on water to be delivered to South Australia.