THE Barwon-Darling River system is an ecosystem in crisis, says a damning draft review of the system's unregulated and alluvial water sharing plan of 2012.
Fish kills, community dissent and the fact towns are running out of drinking water spurred the review.
The draft review, released by the Natural Resources Commission on Wednesday, says communities living along the Barwon-Darling system are under extreme stress.
It blamed poor ecological, social and cultural outcomes on intense drought, significant upstream water extraction, an apparent climate shift and the 2012 water sharing plan.
"Communities who can no longer fish, swim or drink the river water have called for the plan to be fundamentally overhauled," it said.
"These calls have been matched by graziers who have struggled to provide for their stock as the river has dried up.
"At the same time, irrigators have been criticised even as they too have been unable to pump due to cease-to-flow events increasing in frequency and duration."
The review says, as a result of this dire situation, former Regional Water Minister Niall Blair brought forward a review of the plan, which would otherwise not have expired until 2023. It is open for public comment until August 19.
The review highlighted the fact river mussels have largely disappeared from the system. "The decline in river mussels is indicative of a broader, longer-term decline in river health that affects endangered species including Murray Cod and Silver Perch," it said.
"Social outcomes under the plan have also been unsatisfactory."
It said many councils have had to implement critical water supply management strategies and are shifting to bores for the provision of town drinking water, despite utility water having priority over other licenced uses in the plan. It said the shortage of water was affecting communities' physical and mental health.
"Further, basic landholder rights are being negatively impacted by allowable upstream extraction in the plan area, despite the Act requirement that these rights take priority.
"Extraction that pushed the river below Bourke into hydrological drought three years earlier than upstream river sections also brought forward the impacts on communities and town water supplies," the review said.
It said a new approach was needed and "environmental protection and basic landholder rights cannot be detrimentally impacted from lesser priorities such as extractions for irrigation".
The plan had failed the Aboriginal community, the review said, and quoted a submission from Barkandji Elder Badger Bates.
"In the last five years our elders are giving up and dying," he wrote.
"Then our young people are committing suicide. How can I teach culture when they're taking our beloved Barka (Darling) away?
"The river is everything. It's my life, my culture. You take the water away from us, we've got nothing."
The report recommended the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment - Water should:
- Amend and remake the plan;
- Strengthen water metering, monitoring and compliance arrangements;
- Improve modelling of the Barwon-Darling;
- Enhance the protection of low flows to improve environmental and social outcomes;
- Improve Aboriginal engagement and outcomes;
- Engage to improve community outcomes;
- Enhance consideration of climate change;
- Improve groundwater consideration in the Plan.