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River Community Looks to 2023 Election

By Dan Schulz

Three prominent NSW politicians have got their feet wet at Menindee in the past two weeks.

Cate Faehrmann from the Greens Party, Independent MP Justin Field, and the Shadow Environment Minister Penny Sharpe of the NSW Labor party, bore witness to a full Menindee Lakes System, and attended meetings to discuss the future of the Menindee Lakes and Darling-Baaka River with local community members.

This comes after the disallowance motion to prevent floodplain harvesting licenses being issued in the remaining upstream valleys was postponed until later this month.

The Darling River Action Group invited the members of the legislative council to the lakes to show them why floodplain harvesting was contested by downstream communities, and to communicate the economic, cultural, and social value of the lakes.

“We wanted to educate the three of them,” Darryn Clifton, Vice President of the Darling River Action Group told 2DRYFM’s Water Watch Program on Thursday night.

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“It’s been an enormous learning curve for them to see the lakes dry and now a full lake Menindee, 14km by 16km in size… it’s an enormity to see with the water out there.”

The disallowance motion was introduced to the NSW upper house by Independent MP Justin Field, who was last at the Menindee Lakes in 2012.

Mr Field has continued to be critical of the NSW Government’s Floodplain Harvesting Regulations and amended Water Sharing Plans, which have been contested for their inadequate downstream scarcity targets.

“We’ve got to be thinking about the next drought, and that’s what this is all about, making sure a fair share of water gets down the river to communities and for the environment,” Mr. Field said, “and that won’t happen with the government’s floodplain harvesting policies.”

Floodplain harvesting licenses have already been issued in the Gwydir and the Border River valleys with the NSW Environment Minister James Griffin giving his support to the regulations.

The disallowance motion is to be voted on later this month and will prevent further licenses being issued in the remaining valleys.

Mr. Field said the rules that have been agreed by the Water Minister and the Environment Minister are totally inadequate to deliver on the requirements of the Water Management Act (2000) which prioritises the needs of the river ecosystem and critical human needs over extractive users.

“The rules agreed upon by the Ministers just don’t do that, and it means that the environment and downstream users carry all the risk if we’ve got this wrong,” Mr Field says.

The MP has recently questioned both the Water Minister and Environment Minister in Budget Estimates, inquiring as to how the Water Minister can demonstrate the rules he’s put in place, and the flow targets in the Water Sharing Plans, are going to deliver on his obligation under the NSW Water Management Act.

“He just couldn’t answer that because there isn’t an answer and because they haven’t,” Mr Field says.

“This is what ICAC warned about in their 2020 report [into NSW water management], the systemic non-compliance with the Act, and this is what the NRC (Natural Resources Commission) when they’ve done numerous reports, warned against: the failure to deliver on ecosystem needs.”

Reduction in flows down the Darling-Baaka River are reflected in declining long-term storage patterns in Menindee Lakes, as shown by decadal averages since the 1970s, which reveal increased drying over the last two decades.

But Darryn Clifton of the Darling River Action Group remembers when inflows to the lake system were enough to sustain a healthy lake system.

“It was a well-managed system back in those days, but since this current government’s been in power, we’ve had less flows down the river and of course less flows down the river means less water in the lakes.

“So, it’s a change of practice by a government who’ve changed water sharing plans to prosper irrigators upstream.”

“We’re about water equality,” Mr. Clifton says. “We don’t want the whole lot, but we want to see equality where river connectivity continues.”

Mr Clifton invited Shadow Environment Minister Penny Sharpe to the Menindee Lakes with hopes for a change of government next year.

Ms. Sharpe has been coming to Menindee Lakes for over 20 years and says the Menindee Lakes is an important asset, not just for this local community but for the whole of NSW and Australia.

“We’ve basically had 12 years of a government who have really mismanaged water policy across the board, they have not managed water in the best interests of the environment or the economy and local communities.

“I think there’s been favoritism of some over others and I think we see the impact of that,” Ms. Sharpe said.

“Labor remains concerned that the NSW government has licensed floodplain harvesting in absence of the other conversations we need to have about connectivity of the river all the way down, flow targets, and priority of use of this very precious resource that with climate change is getting more and more challenging to manage.”

“We don’t want to give lip service to protecting the river but what are the actions we need to take to make sure that that can occur.”

Darryn Clifton is quite sure the disallowance will go through again.

“We hope the disallowance lasts out to the next state election where we hope to have a new government in and a new government that will have a different approach to the environment and the communities that have to survive along the river and the lakes.”

Cate Faehrmann, Justin Field and Penny Sharpe have an ongoing relationship with the Menindee community and despite the fact Mr. Field isn’t planning to serve another term in Parliament, he says he wanted to get his feet wet anyway.

“I wanted to talk to people I’ve been on the phone with over the years, sit down next to the river and have a chat with them,” he said.

“It always makes a difference when you can go into parliament and share your personal experiences of the river.

I know there’s a lot of people out here who are passionate about the river, and they understand water policy. People out here really get it.

They live water policy. I want to acknowledge the work of so many people for holding the line here.”

Floodplain harvesting rules continue to be contested by the Darling-Baaka River community and pressure on the NSW government to reconsider its water sharing arrangements will persist into next year.

Political campaigning around water management for the NSW 2023 state election has clearly begun.

PICTURE: Darling River Action Group and other community members meet with Justin Field. PHOTO: Otis Filley

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