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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. 


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.  


Conservation movement ready to work with the new Labor leadership on koalas, climate, water and forestry

Statement by Nature Conservation Council Chief Executive Chris Gambian 

“We welcome Chris Minns’ election as leader of NSW Labor and look forward to working with the new Labor leadership team to put climate action and the protection of nature at the top of the political agenda. 

“The people want an effective Opposition with a comprehensive set of policies to tackle our most urgent environmental issues and force the government to compete for votes in these vital areas of public policy.  

“We hope that the new Labor leadership team can start a race to the top against the Coalition in the critical areas of koala conservation, climate action and the reform of water and forestry management. 

“Labor has an opportunity and a responsibility to come up with a plan to end native forest logging in a way that supports workers into a sustainable plantation-based industry. 

“And Labor must take up the fight on land clearing, especially terrible proposals that would accelerate the extinction crisis for koalas. 

“The Coalition government is taking strong action on the energy transition and national parks, but is getting wrong on water, koalas, logging and land clearing. 

“The new leader must lead on climate action policies that go beyond a just energy sector transition and includes electric vehicles and agriculture. And end the false choice between jobs and a livable climate.  

“Labor must recommit to supporting a healthy Murray-Darling Basin through better water management and flow targets. 

“It must also show leadership on the pressing issue of native forest logging. Our forests and the wildlife they support are dying because of unsustainable logging.” 


Transparency and accountability are the key to restoring public confidence in water management in NSW

The NSW Government must vigorously prosecute landholders who have harvested floodplain waters illegally, and release all the legal advice it has received on the status of floodplain harvesting over the past two years.

Media reports today reveal that Water Minister Melinda Pavey was told months ago that unlicenced floodplain harvesting was illegal under the Water Management Act but kept that advice secret during critical public debates on the issue. [1]

“The Minister not only kept the advice secret, she failed to act upon that advice by introducing measures to stop the continuing theft of massive volumes of water cross large parts of NSW,” Nature Conservation Council Chief Executive Chris Gambian said.

“At the same time, she was busy ramming through regulations that transferred billions of dollars’ worth of publicly-owned water to private landholders in the form of floodplain harvesting licences.

“Fortunately, those regulations and licences were overturned by the NSW Legislative Council, by a cross party group including Justin Field, Labor, Greens, Shooters and Animal Justice.

“But with billions of dollars’ worth of water at stake, you can be sure the irrigator lobby is pressing the Nationals to have another crack.

“This whole episode further undermines public confidence in the administration of water and the government’s ability to balance the needs of the environment and the interests of downstream communities against the incessant demands of irrigators.

“That’s why we need to know what the government was told, and when, regarding this critical matter of public interest before any more changes are made to water laws and regulations in NSW.”

Mr Gambian said the legal advice the Minister had kept secret was a critical piece of information that MPs were not given when casting their votes on the Floodplain Harvesting Regulation disallowance.

“The failure to disclose this critical advice was very favourable to the interests of irrigators because the regulation gifted billions of dollars of water to irrigators who were otherwise not entitled to it

“Any licensing of floodplain water take must guarantee an ecologically sustainable water flows right through to the bottom of the system.

“Anything less will have a devastating impact on river health and downstream farmers and communities.

“The law should be enforced and those landholders who have taken water to which they had not right should be prosecuted.”

[1] NSW labels flood-plain harvesting ‘legal’ but internal advice suggests opposite, SMH, 26-5-21


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

 


A win for Menindee Lakes and lower Darling-Baaka communities

The NSW Government’s decision to abandon engineering works that would have dried out Menindee Lakes is a win for the ecosystems, communities and businesses that rely on the lakes for their survival. [1]

“Minister Pavey deserves credit for listening to the local community, which has always opposed starving Menindee Lakes of water just to give more to irrigators at the top of the system,” Nature Conservation Council Chief Executive Chris Gambian said.

“Now the government needs to ensure enough water actually makes it all the way down the river some the lakes can fill rather than be syphoned off into private dams hundreds of kilometres upstream.

“That means buying back water licences, limiting floodplain harvesting to ecologically sustainable levels, and delivering cultural water so the Traditional Owners can continue their cultural practices.”

Scrapping the Menindee Lakes engineering works was a key demand of the Darling-Baaka River Delegation that came to Sydney earlier this week to lobby for improved river health. 

The delegation comprised landholders and Indigenous leaders from around Menindee Lakes and other parts of the Far West. 

Other demands that are yet to be met include:

  • Keeping the river running along its whole length by slashing water extraction for irrigation to ecologically sustainable levels that are realistic about the effects of climate change.
  • Limiting floodwater harvesting to ecologically sustainable levels by strictly limiting the issuing of new licences.  
  • Listing the Menindee Lakes under the Ramsar Convention for wetlands of international significance.
  • Putting Indigenous water needs ahead of irrigation industry demands.  

“Water policy is complex, but the problem is simple. There are too many straws in the glass —  too much water is being taken from the floodplains and rivers,” Mr Gambian said.  

“Today’s announcement is a great step forward, but a lot more needs to be done to stop the Darling-Baaka River dying.

“There is a very serious risk the government will issue licences for floodplain harvesting that take yet more water from the river, its ecosystems and the downstream users.

“We call on Minister Pavey must ensure volumes agreed in floodplain harvesting licences are measurable and ecologically sustainable. 

“The Darling-Baaka needs the small and medium flows to keep the system alive and connected.

”This means extraction for irrigation should only occur when connectivity from the top of the river system to the confluence with the Murray, is guaranteed.” 

References

[1] Pavey says Menindee water-savings project discussions suspended, The Land, 18-3-21

[2] Darling-Baaka River delegation puts water back on the political agenda, NCC, 16-3-21


Darling-Baaka River delegation puts water back on the political agenda

A delegation of landholders, Indigenous leaders and recreational river users from the Far West has come 1000km to Sydney to urge the NSW Government to urgently address mismanagement of the Darling-Baaka River and Menindee Lakes. 

Since the death of millions of fish in Menindee Lakes in 2019, the plight of the Darling-Baaka River, the lakes and the ecosystems, communities and economies that rely on them have slipped off the political and media agenda. But the problems highlighted two years ago are unresolved and new threats are emerging.

Darling-Baaka River Water Delegation has come to Sydney to put the spotlight back on the issue and prompt the government to restore the health of the river and hope for river people. The delegation’s key demands are spelt out in the Darling-Baaka River Action Plan (attached) and  include:

  • Keeping the river running along its whole length by slashing water extraction for irrigation to ecologically sustainable levels that are realistic about the effects of climate change.
  • Limiting floodwater harvesting to ecologically sustainable levels by strictly limiting the issuing of new licences.  
  • Keeping Menindee Lakes and the Great Anabranch alive. Abandon engineering works that will reduce their ecological, economic and community value, and list them under the Ramsar Convention.
  • Putting Indigenous water needs ahead of irrigation industry demands.  

The delegation is meeting MPs from all sides of politics, and will urge them to support the following key actions:

  1. Enforce laws that require Indigenous cultural, drinking and environmental water be delivered ahead of irrigation water.
  2. Install gauges at Wilcannia and Menindee to ensure promised water flows are actually delivered.
  3. Nominate Menindee Lakes as a wetland of international significance under the Ramsar Convention.  
  4. Scrap the engineering works planned at Menindee Lakes that will limit the amount of water getting to the lakes and make the lakes empty faster than they do now.
  5. Stop irrigators at the top of the basin pumping if and when the river stops flowing along its whole length.
  6. Support voluntary water licence buybacks to reduce the amount of water extracted for irrigation. 
  7. Limit the issuing of floodplain harvesting licences to ecologically sustainable levels.
  8. Order the removal of illegal private dams, channels and levies that are trapping floodwaters and preventing water getting to wetlands, watering floodplains, recharging aquifers.

The delegation includes: 

  • Uncle Badger Bates, a Barkandji Elder from Wilcannia on the Darling-Baaka River. (Attending via Zoom due to COVID-19).
  • Derek Hardman, CEO of the Barkandji Native Title group. (Attending via Zoom due to COVID-19).
  • Rob McBride, owns Tolarno Station near Menindee Lakes, one of the biggest sheep farms in the world. 
  • Julie McClure, co-owner of Kallara Station, a sheep property.
  • Don Stewart, Treasurer of the Darling River Action Group, based in Broken Hill.

 

All delegates are available for interviews.