By Megan Williams
A key piece of the puzzle to licence and regulate flood plain harvesting in upstream valleys of the Gwydir and Border Rivers was put in place last week when Environment Minister James Griffin gave support to the Water Sharing Plans in these upstream valleys.
The controversial practice to capture water in on-farm dams as it flows across floodplains has been subject to a long and drawn-out debate after the NSW Government’s efforts to introduce regulations had been blocked by the NSW Upper House in three disallowance motions over the past two years.
Regulations were introduced to NSW parliament on July 1st by Water Minister Kevin Anderson. Now Minister Griffin has given the tick of approval to four of the 10 Water Sharing Plans which means floodplain harvesting is set to be fully licenced, regulated and permitted in these valleys from September 1.
These final stages of regulation have not been without controversy.
Licenced and regulated floodplain harvesting can occur while the Menindee Lakes have more that 195GL in total water storage.
In recent community consultations many were adamant the number was insufficient to protect critical environmental and human needs at Menindee and down the Lower Darling-Baaka.
Water Minister Anderson sought approval from Environment Minister Griffin for this downstream target while community consultations were ongoing and before the department had reported its findings.
Local Member for Barwon, Roy Butler, talking to Water Watch on 2DRY FM, said the process had failed to adequately consult downstream communities.
“That’s not good process, it doesn’t look right if you’re making a decision before you’ve finished gathering information from people up and down the river… and it certainly doesn’t look like they’re taking the consultation process seriously.”
The Shooters Fishers and Farmers (SFF) MP acknowledged that the downstream target is insufficient.
“Whatever number they want to use as a target at Menindee should be based on what can be managed.
“It’s pretty clear that all or most of that 195GL isn’t water that can be managed, therefore it can’t be used to protect the Lower Darling, so that target is certainly not adequate.”
Despite this, Mr Butler said the SFF would not support a future disallowance motion now that downstream targets have been set, as he would rather see floodplain harvesting regulated, measured and monitored.
“What I don’t want to see is uncontrolled, unlimited and unmetered floodplain harvesting. The regulation is something I took to the election, I wanted to see floodplain harvesting regulated. I don’t think it would benefit downstream communities if uncontrolled, unlimited and unregulated floodplain harvesting continues upstream.
“But certainly I’m more than happy to speak to the Minister about making that target a more realistic target of manageable water.”
Water Policy expert, and vocal critic of the NSW Government and their efforts to regulate floodplain harvesting, Maryanne Slattery, agrees regulation needs to be in place, in order to regulate and ensure floodplain harvesting complies with legal limits on extractions, but she says the policy as it stands does not achieve this.
“Most people agree that floodplain harvesting needs to be regulated, we can’t just have a free for all of water coming out of the system for irrigation. The issue is what the regulation looks like.”
Ms Slattery, Director of the research consultancy Slattery & Johnson, claims the total volume being licenced for floodplain harvesting is too high and licences are too generous.
“My issue is that the volumes being put into legislation actually exceed the legal valley limits that have been in place since the ‘90s.
“The other issues are the actual rules relating to the [floodplain harvesting] take. For example, in the Gwydir regulated valley, the water sharing plan signed last week gives the provision to take five times the face value of the licence, it allows carry over five times and take of five times the licence in one year.
“That means if the water doesn’t arrive, the amount that’s owed to a floodplain harvesting licence keeps accruing and when a flush does come through, if you’ve got a floodplain harvesting licence you’ve got first access to the water before everyone downstream.”
Ms. Slattery was also critical of the downstream trigger targets which would see low security licenses suspended only in very dry times.
These trigger targets are not hardwired into the water sharing plans but would only come into effect at the discretion of the Water Minister, via section 324 of the Water Management Act which allows the Minister to trigger temporary water restrictions if it’s in the public interest. On 2DYRFM’s Water Watch program, Ms. Slattery claimed that the Minister’s targets are “woefully inadequate, not enforceable, and subject to Ministerial discretion.”
“The Far West community know firsthand what it’s like to be the victim of ministerial discretion when it comes to flows coming down the Barwon-Darling-Baaka into Menindee because they’ve lived the experience of Ministers not putting embargoes in place when they should have,” Ms Slattery said.
Despite these public criticisms, MP Butler was clear about his position to regulate floodplain harvesting which was an issue he took to the 2019 election.
“In terms of reducing rights that people have to access floodplain harvesting water, I believe that the regulation itself is sound and it will do what it’s setting out to do.”
Whether the Upper House of NSW agrees, and allows this regulation to stand on its fourth attempt, remains to be seen.