A new rule to protect the connectivity of the Darling River has been put to the test for the first time, but how it was implemented raised concerns from downstream communities.
The Resumption of Flows Rule restricts 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.
The rule came into effect on January 12, 90 days after flows dropped below 200 ML/day at Wilcannia on October 15.
WaterNSW said once authorities were confident the flow would reach the targets of both the 400ML/day flow rate at Wilcannia for 10 days and cumulative flow of 30,000ML to pass Bourke, limited access was granted to A class irrigators upstream of Bourke on January 24.
Then when modelling confirmed the water would reach Menindee, access to all irrigators upstream of Bourke was restored from January 29.
However, as a flow did not reach Wilcannia until January 31, the resumption of pumping on January 24 (limited to A class irrigators) and January 29 (all irrigators upstream of Bourke) was a cause of significant concern for downstream communities.
Bill Ashby of Trevallyn Station, Wilcannia, said it seemed like irrigators were at the top of the list of priorities again.
"The water is meant to be for environment, stock and domestic and cultural needs before anything else but they started pumping again before the water even reached Wilcannia," Mr Ashby said.
"And there's still a lot of dry river between Wilcannia and Menindee."
Water's arrival at Wilcannia "reduced anxiety"
Barwon MP Roy Butler, whose electorate includes large stretches of the Darling River from Bourke to Menindee, said he was contacted by a number of people and organisations concerned about how the new rule was being applied following the resumption of pumping announcement.
"This is the first time the NSW government tried this new rule and it's still unfolding," Mr Butler said.
"We know that water hit Wilcannia a couple of days ago and that's very good because there were people in the downstream communities who were concerned they wouldn't see any water, the fact water has arrived hasn't addressed concerns but it has reduced anxiety.
"That head of water basically doubled in the last two reporting periods, it went from 492ML to just over a gig. Hopefully that level of flow continues and I hope they (WaterNSW) exceed the targets they have set."
WaterNSW said currently up to 13 gigalitres is expected to reach Wilcannia in early February, with as much as five gigalitres possible for Lake Wetherell in the Menindee lakes system by mid-February.
Call for external and internal reviews
On Monday Mr Butler called for an external review into the first use of the new rule.
"That for me is all about trust and confidence, it's one thing for the agency to do their own review, which is absolutely appropriate as they will look at their internal processes and decision-making, but an external review would give people along the river confidence that the right decisions have been made," Mr Butler said.
"This review must look at forecasts, trigger points, communication, definitions and it goes without saying the actual results of decisions compared to what was intended."
Mr Butler also released a statement last week urging WaterNSW to improve their communication with the general public.
"People all down the river look at a dry river, they hear water is coming out upstream and their immediate reaction is I'm not going to see water in my part of the river," Mr Butler said.
In a responding statement, WaterNSW said in the lead up to the activation of the new rule, WaterNSW met with local councils, farmers and irrigators, as well as government environmental authorities at least nine times to ensure the implementation of the new rule was understood.
They added that the information is also readily available on WaterNSW's WaterInsights platform and the agency had used commercial radio and the ABC to raise awareness, issued several media releases, and informed water users through its customer communication network.