A new rule to protect the connectivity of the Darling River has been activated under the new Barwon-Darling water sharing plan, but Lower Darling landholders say although it is a step in the right direction, more needs to be done to ensure water security downstream.
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From Tuesday, the Resumption of Flows Rule will restrict A, B and C class water licence holders from pumping when the flow rate of the Darling River at Wilcannia has been below 200 megalitres a day for 90 days.
Pumping can resume in line with existing access announcements once there is a forecast for river flow at Wilcannia of 400ML/day for a minimum of 10 days, or a forecast of a cumulative flow of 30,000ML to pass Bourke.
NSW Water Minister Melinda Pavey said by changing how flows were managed, and when licence holders could access water from the river, they were protecting the environmental water in the system.
"This will reduce the need for temporary water restrictions to protect environmental flows," Ms Pavey said.
Prior to the new rules, licence holders could pump when the commence-to-pump threshold was reached, even if part of the flow was released to benefit the environment.
"We need these new environmental water rules because the old access rules for licence holders did not differentiate between flows from rainfall and releases that benefit the environment," Ms Pavey said.
The change in rules comes after the government's handling of the first flush event in February 2020 was brought under fire, with the controversial decision to lift a pumping and floodplain harvesting embargo during the event investigated by an independent panel.
The panel found that insufficient planning and preparation was undertaken for the first flush and "decision-making was opaque."
Call for flow targets further downstream
Nerida Healy of Court Nareen station, between Menindee and Pooncarie, welcomed the new rule but said the water sharing plan needed to take into account flow targets further downstream.
"It's a step in the right direction but we need to recognise a flow target at Menindee Lakes for it to be effective in the Lower Darling," Mrs Healy said.
"We need security of an 18-month-supply in Menindee because at the moment we are still facing a no-flow event at the start of 2022."
Mrs Healy said they had had to change their entire business operation due to the lack of water security experienced over the last five years.
"We only run sheep now, whereas previously we had table grapes and cattle as well," she said.
But, despite the ongoing challenges, this summer has been a stark contrast to the last couple of years, with recent rain and a flowing river raising spirits.
"Having a flow in the river over the summer months has been so nice, we've been able to take the kids down to the river with their paddle boards and canoes," Mrs Healy said.
"It's really highlighted the mental strain we had when it wasn't there."
Fellow Pooncarie landholder Denis Miller of Whurlie Station said they were hopeful the rule would make a difference to connectivity of the river.
"In a year like this where we're having phenomenal rainfall in the catchments, to see that water not getting much further than Bourke is very distressing because we don't get these opportunities very often," Mr Miller said.
Summer cropping impacted
Barwon Darling Water spokesperson Ian Cole said although the new rule would impact production and some communities in the north of the state, they were rules their irrigator group had supported to ensure connectivity of the river.
"It will mean some people who need a little more water to finish their summer crops won't be able to pump, which will impact production around Bourke and further up the river," Mr Cole said.
"But the rules are the rules and they're the rules we supported."
Moree Plains Shire Council mayor Katrina Humphries was less accepting of the new rule, saying their community had done much of the heavy lifting when it came to river flows.
"We've been damaged in the last 12 months because a lot of the water which fell at the start of 2020 was embargoed," Cr Humphries said.
"We're all for making sure the rivers flow but we also have industry and we also have water rights.
"I understand environmental flows but I also understand people being shafted and we're sick of being shafted."
Cr Humphries said she was concerned the new rule would be based on forecasts, which she said were "so wrong, so often."