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Floodplain harvesting inquiry is a chance to clear the air after government’s failed floodwater giveaway

23 June 2021 

The Nature Conservation Council looks forward to contributing to the NSW Upper House inquiry into floodplain harvesting announced today. 

“The inquiry follows the introduction earlier this year of poorly designed regulations that would have transferred billions of dollars’ worth of public water into private hands,” Nature Conservation Council Chief Executive Chris Gambian said. 

“Those floodplain harvesting regulations would also have denied water-dependent wildlife, ecosystems and downstream communities vital water resources just as climate change is really starting to bite in NSW, especially in the Far West. 

“Had they not been disallowed by the NSW Parliament, they would have constituted one of the greatest transfers of natural resources into private hands in Australia’s history. 

“Floodplain harvesting is killing our rivers. It needs to be reined in, not given a blanket exemption.” 

The NSW Legislative Council voted today to establish a select committee into: 

  1. the NSW Government’s management of floodplain harvesting, including: 
  2. The legality of floodplain harvesting practices;  
  3. The water regulations published on 30 April 2021; 
  4. How floodplain harvesting can be licensed, regulated, metered and monitored so that it is sustainable and meets the objectives of the Water Management Act 2000 and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan; and  
  5. Any other related matters. 

The committee will have three government MPs, three Opposition MPs and two crossbenchers. Greens MLC Cate Faerhman will be chairperson. Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party MLC Mark Banaziak will be deputy chair. 


Senate must reject Nationals' attempts to further undermine the Basin Plan

The Nature Conservation Council calls on all Senators to defend the Murray-Darling River system and reject proposed National Party amendments to the Water Legislation Amendment (Inspector-General of Water Compliance and Other Measures) Bill 2021. 

“The proposed amendments will substantially hamper attempts to restore the Murray-Daring River system and are clearly not in the public interest,” Nature Conservation Council Chief Executive Chris Gambian said. 

“Water buybacks are a critical tool for reviving our dying Murray-Darling River system. Without them, we may never restore the basin’s rivers, lakes and billabongs, and we’ll leave a legacy of toxic algal blooms and dead and dying river red gum forests. 

“Any moves to outlaw buybacks as a legitimate management tool are extremely reckless. 

“We call on Senators to stop the Nationals further undermining the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and entrenching the wealth and power of the irrigator lobby.” 

The amendments would also scrap the return of 450 gigalitres of desperately needed water to the environment.  


Climate, air quality, deforestation and river health should be top of the agenda for Upper Hunter by-election candidates

The Nature Conservation Council urges all candidates in the Upper Hunter by-election to put climate change, air quality, the protection of wildlife habitat, and river health at the top of their agendas.

“Climate change is the number-one economic and environmental challenge facing communities of the Upper Hunter and Liverpool Plains, so all candidates need to make clear what they will do for the region on climate,” Nature Conservation Council Chief Executive Chris Gambian said.

“Any candidate who does not have climate change at the top of their platform is not really representing the true interests of the community.

“All candidates need a plan for meaningful action to cut emissions, and ensure that Hunter communities have a realistic pathway to new economic opportunities in a low carbon economy.

“Change is coming to the Upper Hunter, one way or another. These changes could be very positive, or they could be very negative – it all depends on how our politicians and governments handle it.

“So far, the major parties are putting the Upper Hunter on the road to ruin by refusing to deal frankly with climate change and the decline of the coal industry.

“The coal and electricity generation industries in the Upper Hunter contribute more than any other electorate to climate change in NSW, so it must play a leading role in slashing our state’s emissions.

“It is not fair to expect people in this region to carry the burden of that alone, which is why we are calling on the NSW Government to establish a Community and Industry Transition Fund and Transition Authority.”

Mr Gambian said candidates must also advocate strongly to improve very poor air quality in some parts of the electorate, and support measures to reverse the decline in native bushland and species under threat from logging and land clearing for mines, farming and urban development.

The Nature Conservation Council calls on all candidates to support the following measures:

Support communities

  • Use coal royalties to create a multi-billion-dollar Community and Industry Support Fund.
  • Establish a Community and Industry Support Authority to collaborate with workers, communities, and industry on Community and Industry Support Plans tailored to different coal communities.

End the expansion of coal and gas

  • Stop releasing farmland and wildlife habitat for coal and gas developments.
    Rescind the recent release of land around Rylstone and Wollar for coal exploration.
  • Stop issuing coal and gas exploration and mining licences in the Upper Hunter, Liverpool Plains and Central West.
  • Ban new coal mines and gas fields.

Improve local air quality

  • Set air quality standards in line with world’s best practice and improve air quality monitoring.
  • Implement an air-pollution reduction strategy across NSW to improve air quality by slashing emissions.
  • Reduce emissions from coal-fired power stations by installing readily available technology, updating pollution licences and improving monitoring.

Protect, restore and reconnect wildlife habitat

  • End native-forest logging, a key driver of the decline of koalas and other forest wildlife.
  • Stop land-clearing for mining, agriculture and urban development.
  • Create a network of revegetated wildlife corridors through the Hunter and Liverpool Plains.
  • End the use of biodiversity offsets, except in exceptional circumstances.
  • Ban the burning of native forests for electricity and reject the proposed recommissioning of Redbank Power Station to burn forest biomass.

Restore rivers and wetlands

  • Mandate environmental flows to keep our rivers healthy.
  • Tighten the water-use monitoring regime to end water theft and give certainty to all water users.
  • Enforce the law regarding floodplain harvesting, and ensure all floodplain harvesting regulations guarantee sustainable water flow for river health and downstream communities.
  • No new dams.

The Nature Conservation Council of NSW is the peak conservation organisation for NSW, representing more than 160 local, regional, state-wide environment organisations.


Floodplain harvesting regulations are a death sentence for our rivers

The Nature Conservation Council is urging members of parliament to disallow new regulations legalising the practice of floodplain harvesting that were released today, saying that allowing irrigators to divert floodwaters under the regulations will starve rivers, wetlands, and downstream communities and ecologies of huge volumes of water. 

“Many of our rivers and wetlands are already in a perilous state and this new regulation that will deprive them on a huge volume of precious water will have drastic consequences,” said Chris Gambian, Chief Executive of the Nature Conservation Council of NSW. 

“The environment movement urges all parliamentarians to vote to disallow this dreadful regulation and protect our rivers, wetlands and downstream communities. 

“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.  

“We’ve seen how hard and expensive it is to undo the mistakes of over allocating water resources in the past. 
  
"The regulations introduced by the government do not have the safeguards, limits and downstream targets to ensure that any diversion of floodwaters is sustainable. It is a death sentence for our rivers and wetlands.” 


Far West gas fields - where is the water coming from?

The NSW Government should protect water supplies, farmland, communities and wildlife in the Far West by immediately ruling out the development of an industrial gas field in the region, according to the NSW Nature Conservation Council.

The government this year resurrected plans to let big fossil fuel companies drill gas wells across millions of hectares of grazing land stretching from Tibooburra in the north to Hillston in the south. [1]

Farmers have reacted angrily to the proposal and the failure of the Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Environment to consult adequately. [2]

“The development of a gas mining industry in the Far West will waste millions of litres of water this region just can’t spare,” Nature Conservation Council Chief Executive Chris Gambian said.

“Gas mining in the west will require fracking, a process that uses vast amounts of water and chemicals to crack the rock to make the gas flow.

“The fossil fuel industry’s own figures show fracking requires about 15 million litres on average for each well, which is enough to fill six Olympic-sized swimming pools. [3]

“If this proposal goes ahead, there could be several hundred wells dotted across the Far West requiring possibly billions of litres of precious water.

“We proudly stand with local farmers and Traditional Owners who utterly oppose fracking on their land.

“It is a cruel irony that gas mining is being contemplated in a region that is already suffering the effects of climate change.

“Burning the gas will add CO2 to the atmosphere when the rest of the world is urgently trying to eliminate its CO2 emissions.”

Mr Gambian said an industrial gasfield would not only be bad for the climate, it would have significant on-the-ground impacts.

“Industrial gas fields are criss-crossed with roads that are bulldozed to give installation and maintenance crews access,” he said.

“In major gas fields, hundreds of kilometres of roads cut through wildlife habitat and grazing land and trigger erosion.

“Habitat fragmentation is a key threat endangering the survival of many unique rangeland species, including the plains wanderer.”

The gas field exploration areas announced by the government cover the Broken Hill Complex and Murray Darling Depression bioregions.

The Broken Hill Complex bioregion is home to 51 vulnerable species, 30 endangered species, one critically endangered species, one endangered population and one endangered ecological community. [4]

The Murray Darling Depression bioregion is home to 67 vulnerable species, 39 endangered species, 6 critically endangered species, 2 endangered populations and 5 endangered ecological communities.

References
[1] There are two exploration areas: one between Wilcannia, Cobar, Ivanhoe and Hillston in geological formations called the Neckarboo and Yathong-Ivanhoe troughs; the other is between Broken Hill, Wilcannia and Tibooburra in geological formations call the Bancannia and Pondie Range troughs. 
[2] Upset at snub in submission time for Far West gas tilt, The Land, 3/3/21
[3] How much water does hydraulic fracturing use?, American Petroleum Institute. “The average fracking job uses roughly 4 million gallons of water per well …” 4 million gallons is 15 million litres.)
[4] NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, Habitat area search Search by region | NSW Environment, Energy and Science

 


Menindee Lakes long overdue for listing under the Ramsar convention on international wetlands

The Nature Conservation Council has launched a campaign to have the Menindee Lakes system in Far Western NSW listed as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention.  

Today is World Wetlands Day, which marks the anniversary of the signing of the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Convention) in Ramsar, Iran, 50 years ago, on February 2, 1971. 

“The Menindee Lakes have been dubbed the Kakadu of the South and one of the most important wetlands in southeastern Australia,” Nature Conservation Council Chief Executive Chris Gambian said. 

“It is not only a jewel in the crown of the Far West of NSW, it is a natural wonder of international significance that deserves to be recognised as such and managed appropriately.  

“After major floods, the lakes are the stage for one of the nation’s great wildlife spectacles, with more than 100,000 water birds feeding, roosting and breeding at the lakes’ edges. 

“They are also a vital oasis for a complex web of other species, including many threatened birds and animals, in a vast semi-arid landscape on the western edge of the state.  

“We are calling on the NSW Government to spearhead efforts to nominate Menindee Lakes for inscription on the Ramsar Convention’s List of Wetlands of International significance.  

“The proposal has the support of the local community, the Barkandji Traditional Owners, the region’s councils, and environment groups. 

“All that is required is leadership from the NSW Government to push the nomination forward. 

“Ramsar listing would not only give the chain of ephemeral wetlands and lakes added protection.  

“It would boost the economy by stimulating tourism, investment and much-needed jobs in one of the country’s most disadvantaged regions.” 

The ecological viability of the Menindee Lakes system is threatened by proposed engineering works that will prevent the lakes from ever filling again and drain much faster.  

The plan has been designed to benefit corporate irrigators at the top of the catchment by allowing them to retain megalitres of water for crops like cotton.  

Locals and the Nature Conservation Council are lobbying the NSW Government to abandon the plan. 

 

BACKGROUND   

Menindee Lakes 

Menindee Lakes comprises four main lakes – Cawndilla, Menindee, Pamamaroo and Wetherell – and several smaller lakes with a combined capacity of 1,731,000 megalitres, three and half times the capacity of Sydney Harbour. Lake Menindee, the largest of the lakes, is 16 kilometres long and 14 kilometres wide. Ref 

What are Ramsar wetlands  

Ramsar wetlands are those that are representative, rare or unique wetlands, or are important for conserving biological diversity. These are included on the List of Wetlands of International Importance developed under the Ramsar convention. Ref 

Ramsar wetlands in NSW  

Blue Lake, Lake Pinaroo (Fort Grey Basin), Myall Lakes, Fivebough and Tuckerbil Swamps, Little Llangothlin Nature Reserve, Central Murray Forests, Gwydir Wetlands, Narran Lake Nature Reserve, Paroo River Wetlands, Hunter Estuary Wetlands, Macquarie Marshes, Towra Point. Ref 


Let the floodwaters flow to replenish the Darling-Baaka and revive river communities

The NSW Government is putting town water supplies and fish stocks on the Darling-Baaka River at risk by telling irrigators at the top of the system they can take river water virtually at will.

Water Minister Melinda Pavey and the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment have in recent days advised irrigators in the Barwon River catchment, including the Gwydir and Namoi sub-catchments, that there is ample water and to take what they want.     

“The Minister should not let big irrigators at the top of the system syphon off this precious water for private profit,” NCC Chief Executive Chris Gambian said.  

“These rains may be the last chance for many months to top up town water supplies, like those at Collarenebri, and replenish billabongs and other wetlands, like the Menindee Lakes.  

“This water should be used for the common good and for the health of the river itself. 

“Significant rainfall this month in the northern basin could flush the Barwon and Darling-Baaka river systems for the first time in months and replenish town water supplies, which would be an absolute godsend this close to Christmas.

“But that is being put at risk by the department and the minister urging big irrigators to take what they want from the first flows. 

“The ICAC report found the department had failed to strike the right balance between the needs of irrigators, towns and the environment.

“This shows that the department has still not mended its ways. However, this does present an opportunity for department to show that it is taking on board the advice of the state’s top anti-corruption watchdog.

“As we are told by BOM, there will be more rain events likely over the summer months, and if we are not sharing the welcome rains right across the state, then the Government will be acting outside of the legislation. There are too many straws in the glass and it must stop now. 

“We urge Minister Pavey to immediately impose an embargo on irrigation take in all tributaries of the Barwon-Darling-Baaka, to ensure town water supplies downstream, environmental recovery and connectivity of the river right through to the confluence in Wentworth.”


Government abdicates responsibility for flood water harvesting in the Gwydir

The government has told landholders in the Gwydir to seek their own legal advice before diverting and capturing floodwaters that are likely to spill over the river’s banks in coming days. 

The Department of Planning, Industry and Environment issued a statement at 6.30pm yesterday saying: 

There are reports of heavy rain in the Gwydir region which could lead to overland flows.  

Due to the disallowance of the government’s regulation amendment, which temporarily exempted certain floodplain works from licencing requirements, any landholder considering floodplain harvesting during this event may wish to seek their own legal counsel. [1] 

“Water authorities have basically abdicated their responsibility saying they don’t know what the rules are and advising landholders to get their own legal advice on whether to divert and capture floodwaters in private dams or not,” said Nature Conservation Council Chief Executive Chris Gambian.  

"The NSW Parliament recently disallowed floodplain harvesting regulations and the Crown Solicitor told the government the practice was probably illegal under the Water Management Act unless a landholder has development consent and a water access licence, which many don’t. [2]  

"The government may have been annoyed at the disallowance of their regulation, but that does not mean they can ignore the parliament's decision and let irrigators choose their own adventure.   

“The department should actively protect flood waters from illegal capture so water can reach the Darling-Baaka River, which has stopped flowing at Bourke and is a puddle at Wilcannia. 

"Water that does not reach our rivers is just as important as water that gets sucked out of our rivers by irrigation pumps."  

 
REFERENCES 

[1] https://www.industry.nsw.gov.au/water/news/flood-event-in-gwydir-valley 

[2] Floodplain harvesting likely illegal under NSW water management act, crown solicitor warns, The Guardian, 8-12-20   

 


Troy Grant appointment further undermines public confidence in water management in NSW

The National Party has taken cronyism to new heights with the appointment of a former NSW party leader as Interim Inspector-General of Water Compliance. [1] 

“They’re not even pretending anymore,” Nature Conservation Council Chief Executive Chris Gambian said.

“Troy Grant was in charge when some of the worst policy decisions that favour big irrigators at the expense of communities, farmers and nature downstream.

“Fresh from stinging criticism from ICAC about water management in NSW, the federal government has appointed the fox to be in charge of the hen house.

“The NSW Nationals have had a hyper-partisan role in water politics, their finger in every instance of water mismanagement and have been attacking other states. This is an entirely inappropriate appointment.

“Downstream communities will suffer the consequences of their mismanagement for decades to come. 

“The public can have no faith that Mr Troy will be an independent, impartial and fearless watchdog when he is so compromised by his close ties to the dodgy past decisions.

“This appointment was an opportunity to restore some confidence in the governance of our precious inland water supplies. 

“This hyper-partisan appointment confirms the worst fears of many - that water policy in NSW is still captured by the industry and their political mates.” 

References

[1] Former deputy premier to head revamped Murray-Darling compliance role, ABC, 16-12-20


Premier Berejiklian, please the save Menindee Lakes – Kakadu of the south

The Nature Conservation Council welcomes Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s decision to visit Menindee Lakes today to see first-hand the impact water management decisions are having on local communities and ecosystems.

Ms Berejiklian’s visit coincides with the launch of the Nature Conservation Council’s Save Menindee Lakes Campaign, which aims to restore water flows to the lakes to support local communities and millions of water birds and fish.

“The Menindee Lakes is an outback oasis in western NSW and it is under threat,” Nature Conservation Council Chief Executive Chris Gambian said.

“The NSW Government plans to cut off the Lakes from the Darling-Baaka River, which would be a social, economic and ecological catastrophe.  

“I applaud the Premier’s for taking the time to see this ecological wonder first-hand. I hope she has time to listen to the concerns of local people.

“When I visited Menindee last month, local people were clearly distressed that the Darling-Baaka River and the Menindee Lakes were being slowly killed by poor water management.

“I hope that after hearing local concerns, Ms Berejiklian will reconsider her government’s decisions to bleed the lakes dry.

“These lakes have been called the Kakadu of the south because when they are full they support millions of waterbirds and fish and are teeming with life.

“But today, most of the lakes are bone dry. Too much water is being taken out of the river upstream for irrigation so there is not enough for the river and the lakes.

“Now the NSW Government and big irrigators are planning engineering works to ensure Menindee Lakes drain as fast as they fill.

“This would be a disaster for nature and for communities that rely on the lakes for their livelihoods and recreation, especially the Traditional Owners, the Barkandji people.”