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Floodplain harvesting - a tragedy for rivers

Floodplain harvesting is a major threat to the health of rivers and wetlands. It involves landholders building earthworks and dams to divert water running across the land away from natural waterways and into private dams for irrigation use. There has been a huge increase in the number and volume of private water storages in the past decades. The practice of floodplain harvesting may be illegal, but there has been no serious enforcement. 

The NSW Government is currently seeking to regulate floodplain harvesting by issuing a new type of licence to legalise the practice. While there should certainly be regulation of this area, there is great concern that an unsustainable amount of water will be allocated in these new licences, the regulations will allow up to 500% of an allocation to be taken in one year, and there are no guaranteed targets for downstream flows.

Floodplain harvesting diverts a huge volume of water away from our rivers into private dams, and handing out new licences without proper safeguards, sustainable limits and guaranteed downstream targets will be repeating the mistake of overallocation of water that has already damaged the Murray-Darling Basin.  

Many of our wetlands, floodplain environments, and lakes, and all the animals and plants they support, rely on regular flood events.  To allow irrigators to take up to 500% of a licence allocation in a single year is a recipe for disaster and will see important floodwaters stolen from the environment and downstream communities.  

The Darling-Baaka River is like the trunk of a huge tree. The tributary rivers of the Darling-Baaka are like the branches. They are where the Darling-Baaka gets it water from, like a tree receives its energy through its branches. 

Because the branch tributaries of the Daarling-Baaka span from the from the Paroo in the west all the way around to the Macquarie-Wambuul in the South East, the Darling Baaka is used to getting flows all year around. The Western and Northern tributary rivers are fed by summer monsoonal rains, and the Macquarie-Wambuul catchment by winter rain. 

Floodplain harvesting is severing the branches of the Darling-Baaka, and is a major reason why the mighty river dying from the bottom up.  

Floodplain harvesting does most of its damage by stopping the medium sized floods and large local rain events that would normally pulse through the tributary rivers and into the Darling-Baaka in between big flood events. 

The practice of floodplain harvesting has taken off since the mid-nineties, with reports showing growth by almost two and a half times. This growth correlates with the demise of the ecological condition of the Darling-Baaka. The 2019 Natural Resources Commission review of the Barwon-Darling water sharing plan called the Darling-Baaka an ‘ecosystem in crisis’, and pointed to the need for floodplain harvesting to be meaningfully reigned in.  

Floodplain harvesting is most likely not legal. Lawyers from the NSW Department of Industry, Planning and Environment provided the Water Minister with advice saying that on the balance of probabilities, taking water without an access licence would not be lawful.  

Floodplain harvesting takes water from the first flows after a drought, denying the environment and First Nations Peoples’ right to water downstream, which is in contradiction to the priorities of the Water Management Act and the Murray Darling Basin Plan.  

The NSW government know they have to licence floodplain harvesting, however instead of reducing the level of take the proposed regulations will be locking in and legitimising the current significant volumes taken.  

The irrigation industry has grown very large, wealthy and influential off this free harvest of floodplain water – while the environment and downstream communities have been in sharp decline, that will end in complete destruction if floodplain harvesting is not radically reduced.  

There must be an assessment done of the cumulative environmental impact floodplain harvesting has had over the last thirty years, so that we know the real cost of floodplain harvesting.