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Opening statement to the floodplain harvesting inquiry

Opening Statement to the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into Floodplain Harvesting

By Chris Gambian, Chief Executive Nature Conservation Council of NSW

Thank you, Chair, and thank you to the Committee for the opportunity to say a few words to you this morning.

 First, may I acknowledge that I am coming to you from Bidgegal country on the northern banks of the Georges River, and I pay my respects to ancestors and elders.  I also pay my respects to the ancestors and elders of the Barkinji nation and all the first nations whose country we will discuss today. 

In the searing heat of December 2019 I walked where the Darling Baarka should have been flowing. 

I remember the eery silence. I remember the stillness of that lifeless place. 

The river bank high on either side of me, I could have walked for miles and not seen a drop of water.  

I’ve walked through rows and rows of rotting citrus orchards. A once viable farm now no longer capable of earning a living for the farmer, nor feeding the rest of us.  

When the pipeline from the Murray was built to service Broken Hill because the Menindee Lakes could no longer be relied upon for town water – or so the story goes – emus could be found dead along its route.  They could smell the water but not access it. 

When I was back in the far west in November 2020, even after rain had come you could still smell the stench of dead fish rotting in the water in Wilcannia.

In the town of Menindee, so central to the story Australia tells itself about the outback, the water stinks. The water we ask our fellow Australians to shower in and brush teeth with and drink, stinks.  

The conservation movement of NSW does not support flood plain harvesting.  

It is a practise so contradictory to the principles of water sharing, so antagonistic to the common good, and so profoundly harmful to the sustainability of the ecosystems on which we all depend, that it should be considered not merely illegal, but anti-social and loathsome. 

The assertion made by some that floodplain harvesting must be licenced before it can be regulated or limited is an obtuse one. 

Imagine if this were the government’s approach in other policy areas? 

We oppose floodplain harvesting but we acknowledge that it is a common practice, and we see merit in creating a realistic regulatory framework for it that gives everyone more certainty. 

NCC has participated in the FPH Review Committee in good faith. However, our representative has been gagged through a Deed of Confidentiality. 

Our organisation has had far less access to agency staff and less direct consultation on FPH than the irrigation industry. 

We have lodged several dissenting reports on the assessment and review process with Mr Jim Bentley, the Deputy Secretary. 

Water policy, perhaps more than most policy areas, is extremely complex.  

You’ll hear that often repeated and will know that from your own experience.  

Indeed, too many people stay away from the important debates in water policy because of this complexity, and the details of the history, data and law have been weaponised to bamboozle and confuse politicians, regulators, stakeholders and the public at large to avoid proper scrutiny. 

For my own part, I have tried to understand the complexity through a simple framework which, if you indulge me, I will share with you.  The three ‘Ms’: 

  1. Measurement. This is probably the area where there is the most consensus. We need accurate information about how much water exists in the system, how much is being taken out, by whom, and how much is left. I applaud the government for its efforts to get metres installed across the basin. We need even more measurement. It is critical. 
  2. Modelling. Once we know how much water is in the system, how much is being taken and from where it is being taken, we can start to create realistic models for allocations. Critically, climate change must be factored into the models.
  3. And finally, management. Creating a management regime that ensures the proper priority of use is applied. In this case, end of system flow targets that ensure sufficient water is made available for river health and communities, will create a frame work that is both sustainable and predictable. 

Any regulatory framework needs to be realistic. And that realism needs to start with two acknowledgments: 

First, that this is an incredibly dry continent that is getting drier because of climate change. 

And second, that there is not likely to ever be enough water available to do all the things we may want to do with it. We may have ample land, but we do not have ample water. 

It seems to me that this second reality is the hardest one for many people to swallow.  

Moreover, whilst I speak today to advocate for the health of the river and its ecosystems, the environment is not a stakeholder. 

The deal making and horse trading in water politics over the last 20 years has given rise to the fallacy that the environment somehow exists as some kind of interest group that needs to be balanced against other pursuits. 

Without a healthy river, communities die. Agriculture dies. Its survival is our survival. When it thrives, we thrive. 

Lake Menindee is full right now. Life is coming back. I’m dreaming of the joy of swimming in the river again. After lockdown I’m going to get back there. I want my daughters to experience that incredibly special place. Many of you have been. If you haven’t, I hope you go. I hope more people from the east coast go to visit. It changes you. We must protect it. 

Thank you.