The floodplain dilemma

Taking water from the top means less at the bottom, say irrigators

Southern Riverina Irrigators chairman Chris Brooks (also on our cover) stands in front of the Murray River. SRI has quit the NSW Irrigators Council because the group believes it does not represent their interests. Photo Rachael Webb.

Southern Riverina Irrigators chairman Chris Brooks (also on our cover) stands in front of the Murray River. SRI has quit the NSW Irrigators Council because the group believes it does not represent their interests. Photo Rachael Webb.


The problem of water, who pays for it and who does not, raises its ugly head.


EVER-widening divisions between graziers and irrigation farmers on floodplains in the state's north, while in the south disgust at how paying water users are being treated, is heightening tensions within the Murray-Darling Basin.

Australian Floodplain Association president Terry Korn says conservatively, as much as 3000 gigalitres of water during each overland flow event is being diverted from floodplains across northern NSW, depriving the Barwon-Darling river system of flows.

Irrigators whose businesses are based on capturing that water say rivers must be flooded for a floodplain harvesting event to occur, but graziers say this fails to recognise overland water flows intercepted before they reach the river.

This estimated 3000GL far exceeds the 1800GL NSW and Victoria must supply to South Australia.

The growing tension between these groups has already cost the Nationals two seats in NSW at last week's election.

Mr Korn believes the spotlight has finally been cast on big irrigators that collectively capture the water because of the Menindee fish kill events, which drew headlines across the world and public outcry at home.

While their catchment structures are legal, Mr Korn and water users to the south of these catchment areas believe the behaviour of large upstream irrigators is morally wong and performed with a disregard for environmental consequences.

"They have lost their social licence," said Mr Korn, "because they have failed to ensure Northern Basin irrigators are properly metered despite government offers of assistance.

"The NSW Irrigators Council, National Irrigators Council (NIC) and Cotton Australia have contributed to mismanagement of the Northern Basin and the loss of social licence by the irrigation industry."

The Lower Balonne grazing model report of late 2016 prepared by the Murray Darling Basin Authority says floodplain graziers have been hit hard, to the extent some may no longer be viable.

The Lower Balonne floodplain relies on overbank flows from the Culgoa, Birrie, Bokhara, and Narran Rivers and local streams.

Floodplain harvesting has had "a significant impact . . . on existing grazing businesses in the Lower Balonne," the report says.

"Some properties may have lost up to one quarter of their carrying capacity and earnings due to lower flows." 

The report says stock and domestic supplies have been affected and the communities of Goodooga, Weilmoringle and Brewarrina are suffering.

Brewarrina Mayor Phil O'Connor says floodplain diversion structures must be removed in the state's north and surface waters allowed to flow into rivers again.

"The north and east of the shire have been turned to dust," he says, "and it sickens me the government has tried to sneak this legislation through."

The legislation to which Mr O'Connor refers is the NSW floodplain harvesting policy and particularly amendments that will legalise structures built between 1912 and 2008 for the purpose of capturing flood waters.

Until 2008 it was only earthworks that required approval by authorities, with little regard for the amount of water they could capture.

Mr O'Connor said the structures rob country of moisture, damage river health and NSW is on the verge of allowing big irrigators to trade the water captured.

Essentially that would be gifting millions of dollars worth of potential production to those irrigators, but because that water is now entrenched as part of their business models it is already ultimately tied to their worth in the eyes of creditors and potential buyers.

There is no baseline data for potential flood plain harvest in the northern basin, and Mr O'Connor said irrigators and the government had agreed to measure the water with gauge boards.

"Really, in this day and age that's absurd, we don't ride horses to Dubbo anymore either," he said.

Really, in this day and age that's absurd, we don't ride horses to Dubbo anymore either. - Phil O'Connor

Southern Riverina Irrigators chairman Chris Brooks said simply by calculating the the amount of cotton grown, the take in the state's north by floodplain harvesters would have to be 3000GL.

SRI represents 1800 farmers and has split with the NSW Irrigators Council, claiming the body has failed to represent its members' interests.

"The problem for the south is that traditionally 60 per cent of the water for South Australia came from the Murray and 40pc from the Darling," said Mr Brooks.

"Well there's no water in the Darling, and the MDBA is taking all the water from the Murray, which is why we have no water allocations."

Wentworth Shire councillor Jane MacAllister says all water should be metered, assessed in relation to the Basin's sustainability, and if profits are made, the water paid for: "It's not rocket science."

She said not only have big irrigators avoided paying for water, but groups representing them have actively participated in "bad politics" to influence decisions that have benefited them. 

"If you claim you're operating conscionably in a free-trade environment but trying to nobble your opponents that's wrong and they know it's wrong and small players can't compete with the type of bastardry that's going on."

She said NSW Irrigators Council and NIC were destroying the industry they were meant to represent.

She asked how the NSW government, with no water minister in place, could enforce any embargoes on pumping or catchment.

Without those embargoes in place, which only the minister is empowered to enforce, she asked: "If Cyclone Trevor's remnants dump good falls will they ever make it to the rivers?"

NIC chief executive Steve Whan said the allegations were ridiculous and government supported by the industry was trying convert floodplain harvesting entitlements into volumetric licences. 

"Why oppose this reform? They should work constructively with other stakeholders instead of insulting them," he said.

NSW Irrigators Council chief executive Luke Simpkins said since 1912 floodplain harvesting had not been regulated and there was a process underway to begin measuring it.

"It seems people are trying to politicise the issue and imply these things happen every year.

"There hasn't been any floodplain harvesting for several years," he said.


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