Barwon-Darling Water Sharing Plan reviewed

Water Sharing review shows hardest hit communities


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Water use is clashing with need and greed. Do you irrigate crops, or allow the townsfolk to take a shower?

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The NSW Natural Resources Commission review of the Water Sharing Plan for the Barwon-Darling Unregulated and Alluvial Water Sources 2012, released on Friday, paints a sorry picture of an eco-system in decline.

Parched of water, everyone who relies on the river system is suffering, and pastoral, tourism and recreation industries are doing it the worst.

The review details regional centres within the plan area doing worse than the rest of rural NSW and everyone in the plan's area taking home about $100 less a week.

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"All Local Government Areas in the plan area have experienced population decline over the census period between 2011 and 2016," the review says.

"Rates of unemployment are also higher than is common for rural areas of NSW and was higher in 2016 than 2011 for all LGAs (in the plan area).

"The highest rates of unemployment in 2016 were in Brewarrina, 16.2 per cent, followed by Central Darling, 11.2pc, and Walgett, 10.6pc, compared with the rural NSW average of 4.4pc."

"Income levels reflect the trends in other economic indicators, demonstrating below average economic well-being across personal, family and household wealth," the review said.

"The overall personal median weekly income level across all LGAs (in the Plan area) for 2016 was about $566, compared with the average of $626 for rural NSW."

It said, while the Barwon-Darling is unregulated, significant volumes of water are held off-river by irrigators and other landholders.

"In 2007, the estimated volume in ring tanks in the Barwon-Darling itself was 289 gigalitres, with another 4039GL in ring tanks and hillside dams in the upstream catchments. These ring tanks store water to meet future irrigation requirements," the review said.

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Those figures were taken from a Webb, McKeown and Associates report commissioned by the Murray Darling Basin Commission and delivered in 2007.

The 2007 estimates of water extraction are figures Dubbo-based river ecologist Bill Johnson believes are well outdated.

"There's been a lot of dam building and dam enlargement since then," he said.

The review said: "floodplain harvesting reduces water volumes reaching or returning to rivers, and can seriously affect connectivity between the local floodplain, wetlands and the river.

"The variable climate in the Barwon-Darling area means that periodic large rainfall events can be captured in on-farm storages and used over the intervening dry periods."

That means irrigators with large enough storages might, in their business modelling, plan for a significant floodplain event once in a decade, which will carry them for three to four years.

"This decreases the amount of water available to meet downstream river health, wetland and floodplain needs and the water supply entitlements of other users," the review said.

Mr Johnson said of the review's release: "Some things are gradually starting to come out in the open."

Australia Institute senior water researcher Maryanne Slattery said with what she considered a good and reasoned review now in the public domain it was clear "outsiders" were needed to highlight problems with the plan.

"Anyone from outside the system who has been invited to investigate it has been horrified by what's been going on, and this includes Murray Darling Basin Authority South Australian Royal Commissioner Bret Walker and Northern Basin inspector general Mick Keelty," she said.

"The first step would be for the government to be honest about what the numbers are.

"For instance the cotton industry is claiming to have achieved efficiency advances using precision agriculture water application, yet you can't have precision without knowing how much water you began with and have used at the end," she said.

"You have to be able measure these things to be able to prove your operation has become more efficient.

"The sad thing is the Commonwealth water efficiency program has funded the construction of a lot of these storages and floodplain harvesting earthworks."

Cotton Australia general manager, Michael Murray, said the NRC has acknowledged that since the plan was implemented, average take out of the Barwon-Darling by entitlement holders was just 13pc of total flows.

"The grim reality is that the extreme drought has provided little or no water for anyone, and everyone should acknowledge that irrigators upstream of Menindee on the Barwon-Darling have had no access since December 2017," he said.

"The NRC has made many recommendations, a large number already underway, and our advice is the NSW Government should allow those changes already underway to take effect, before making further changes.

"Changes to the rules won't make a significant difference until the drought breaks and flows return to the river."

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In the long term, Ms Slattery said, she had grave fears for the river system's future: "Are people going to pull down millions of dollars worth of earthworks?

"It's never happened before."

The NRC review said economic benefits have focused on extractive users and the plan had met its 'stated economic objectives' of encouraging water trading and providing licence holders with flexibility.

"The 300pc take and unlimited carryover provisions have been used through the plan period, and provided licence holders with flexibility to accrue and use water based on storage capacity, river flows and other water use drivers.

"However, the Commission finds that these objectives are too narrowly focused on licensed water users and extractive water use."

Therein lies a problem, building earthworks for whatever reason was considered and enshrined in legislation as a 'basic landholder right' until 2012.

"In future, the plan should consider the costs and benefits incurred by other industries and non-extractive water users as a result of the plan, for example the pastoral, tourism and recreation industries," said the review.

It pointed to problems with further analysis because: "It is also not possible to report on indicators relating to the change in economic benefit derived from water extraction because of limited and inconsistent publicly available land and water use data for the Barwon-Darling since 2012."

Irrigators and government representatives will meet in Dubbo today at a public forum, from 10.30am to 3pm, organised by the Department of Industry - Water.

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