The NSW Government has announced new rules will be added to the water sharing plan for the Namoi Valley catchment region by June, 2024, with some significant cuts to floodplain harvesting allocations.
The Namoi is the final valley in the Northern Basin to have a water sharing plan and floodplain harvesting licencing put in place and while irrigators want licencing to finally be completed, there is concern about the reduction in allocations with the Government saying unregulated water sources will be reduced by up to 40 per cent.
The Government announced the changes as part of taking a more measured and sustainable approach to the licensing of floodplain harvesting.
NSW Water Minister Rose Jackson said the changes follow community consultation, multiple independent expert reviews and recommendations from the 2021 select committee inquiry.
"I've listened carefully to the concerns raised by the community and that is why I am taking a more precautionary approach to the licensing of floodplain harvesting in the remaining water sources," Ms Jackson said.
"I support the measurement and management of floodplain harvesting but we need to ensure we're doing it right and not at the expense of our waterways and downstream communities, particularly given the impacts of emerging drought conditions.
"We're taking a more precautionary approach in relation to how groundwater is calculated.
"Previously only groundwater use was accounted for in the calculation. Now the greater of historic groundwater use or the entitlement held is accounted for.
"It's a relatively technical assessment in a way, but it does provide for a slightly more precautionary approach and considering the drying conditions that we are already experiencing and look like unfortunately going to be getting worse, it is a sensible way to proceed."
Ms Jackson said the impact on the average irrigator won't be that significant.
"It is a slightly different way of calculating what their floodplain harvesting entitlement will be," she said.
"There's been a lot of average irrigators in the Namoi familiar with the fact there's been a long and sorry saga about water source modeling in the region.
"That's not resolved, but progress is being made to resolve disagreements or misunderstandings or conflicting points of view about the Namoi water source.
"The good news for the average irrigator is that they will now be able to have a proper floodplain harvesting license and if they have been a supplementary water user under a supplementary water license, they have been impacted by growth in use action that I've had to take to limit water use in the Namoi because it has exceeded extraction limits.
"And unfortunately that's been born entirely by supplementary license holders and has not been equitable.
"Now that we can license floodplain harvesting, there can be a more equitable sharing of any growth in use action.
"So that I think is a really positive outcome."
NSW Irrigators CEO Claire Miller said they support floodplain harvesting regulation but the size of the cuts is concerning.
"Our members are committed to sustainable limits on all water use, but this 40pc cutback on proposed floodplain harvesting in the upper Namoi will be a bitter pill to swallow," Ms Miller said.
"Many irrigators feel left in the dark having not been consulted on the department's decision to change its calculation process.
"NSWIC members support floodplain harvesting regulation, reduction and metering to improve river and floodplain health, but it is essential that transparency and stakeholder engagement is at the forefront of all decision-making."
Ms Jackson said the Namoi Valley plan is more precautionary than other northern basin valley plans.
"It does take a more precautionary principle approach than say the Gwydir, Border Rivers, and Macquarie catchment plans," she said.
"That is partially because Namoi does have the highest volumes of licences.
"Whenever you're trying to balance competing interests, you take a precautionary principle and you focus on areas of highest risk.
And Namoi is the area really of highest risk because the volumes are higher, the number of licenses is higher, and there has been more instances of historic over extraction.
"That has been an issue in other areas too, but if we are taking a more precautionary approach, we focus in on the area that probably represents the biggest risk.
"Largely we are bringing the Namoi into the framework that the other valleys are operating in."
The amendments to the Namoi water sharing plan will be added by June 2024 with the licensing framework to commence on July 1, 2024.
Ms Jackson's predecessors Melinda Pavey and attempted to get floodplain harvesting regulations through the Legislative Council five times only for disallowance motions to thwart their efforts.
A major sticking point in the upper house was first flow targets and the Menindee Lakes minimum level.
Ms Jackson said she wants to get the numbers right before attempting to change the regulations.
"At the moment in the water sharing plans, the Menindee Lakes level is still 195 gigalitres," she said.
"That is still the operative target.
"I am clearly on the public record saying that is an inadequate target.
"We had a discussion about whether we just come in and change that prior to the expert panel on connectivity but in the end I decided against that because I didn't want to repeat the mistakes of just picking random numbers which has been done in the past.
"I have a process which has got economists, psychological metering experts, environmental scientists, all doing expert work, and they're going to give me information about what is needed to ensure connectivity.
"And that is the basis on which I will make decisions.
"Just to be really clear, that 195gl target is not going to remain and no one should be under any illusions that it will.
"Once we have the new target there will be consultation processes about how to implement that.
"We need to get that right. Look at the chief scientist report into the mass fish deaths.
"There was a bunch of stuff in there that was kind of specific to the operational management at that time, but really it was about the fact that it's a really sick ecosystem."
- For more information visit: water.dpie.nsw.gov.au/plans-and-programs/floodplain-managementamp;source=gmail&ust=1701985814325000&usg=AOvVaw05SQN-PJ9MvE6UyB6c05v1" water.dpie.nsw.gov.au/plans-and-programs/floodplain-management