Water minister seeks premature approval

Documents obtained in Parliament this week detail a series of email exchanges between public servants within the Department of Planning and Environment (DPE) which suggest an internal conflict within government on how to comply with their legal obligations to ensure that a fair share of water reaches downstream.

Independent NSW MP Justin Field, who called for the papers said that the emails revealed that NSW Water Minister, the Hon. Kevin Anderson MP was pushing for NSW Environment Minister the Hon. James Griffin, MP to sign off on the Water Sharing Plans prematurely.

“I’m deeply concerned that the Water Minister is trying to ram through inadequate water sharing rules at the 11th hour which do not address community and environment needs or the requirements of the law,” said Mr Field.

Mr Field said that he requested documents referring to language linked to downstream targets from the Water Minister and Environment Minister and their associated departments.

Recent amendments to Water Sharing Plans which create the rules for water sharing arrangements have been highly contested by community members in the Lower Darling, as it includes the controversial water take practice known as Floodplain Harvesting.

Floodplain Harvesting regulation has recently been subject to a Parliamentary Inquiry and have been disallowed three times in the Upper House.

By amending the Water Sharing Plans to include Floodplain Harvesting access rules, before introducing regulation into Parliament, the Water Minister is creating a complicated legal environment under which disallowing Floodplain Harvesting for the fourth time in the NSW Upper House may prove difficult.

In an interview with 2DryFM’s Water Watch program, Justin Field has detailed the disregard of the Minister to take on board feedback from the disallowance motions, Floodplain Harvesting inquiry and community consultation process.

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In seeking concurrence from the Environment Minister by June 30th, the Water Minister is attempting to put the new water sharing rules into effect.

This is despite the fact that the NSW Government has been holding community consultation sessions in Menindee, Bourke and Walgett in the last month asking for feedback on the water sharing rules and the development of future regional water strategies across the State.

“To see that at the same time the Water Minister was supposedly engaged in consultation, he had already put those targets to the Environment Minister for concurrence, it’s an act of bad faith.

“There’s no other way to read that,” said Mr. Field on Thursday night’s Water Watch program.

Lower Darling community members have contested the 195GL total storage trigger target that is supposed to provide Menindee and the Lower Darling water security for 12 months.

This low figure could leave Menindee with as little as 70GL, given 125GL of water at Menindee is potentially inaccessible across the vast lake system.

In the previous dry period, 195GL of total storage was recorded in August 2018. By December 2018 the first fish kill had occurred and another in January 2019.

Mr Field has stated that these triggers are so low, they would be largely ineffective at delivering any critical human needs or environmental outcomes downstream.

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“It really doesn’t go to the issues raised by the community or in the three disallowance debates in the Upper House where there’s been an expectation that the targets not just be about the

first flush but be more broadly meeting those priorities of use provisions.

“It speaks for itself; the community must feel like they’ve been misled by the department and the Water Minister.

“Clearly if he had gotten an easy and quick tick off from the Environment Minister these things would be now in law in NSW and the consultation would have amounted to nothing.”

Mr Field has now uncovered email threads that reveal internal discussion within DPE Water where a senior public servant recommended that including downstream flow targets that prevent floodplain harvesting access when there is critical human and environmental needs would “better address some of the key concerns raised through the inquiry that relate to water sharing.

“This would strengthen the case that the Minister is taking all reasonable steps to comply with the Water Management Act 2000.”

The documents also reveal that DPE’s Environment Heritage Group had recommended in an issue paper that the Water Minister’s downstream flow targets are too low to protect key environmental assets outside of extreme dry periods.

The paper also reveals that the Environment Heritage Group has developed alternative flow targets based on environmental water requirements.

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“What I am saying is that this is an act of bad faith by the Water Minister, we are asking the Environment Minister to press pause while we can look at this a bit more closely.”

NSW Water Minister, Kevin Anderson, MP, made the following response:

“By licensing floodplain harvesting the NSW Government is ensuring that the water take is accurately measured, giving greater protections to the environment and water users downstream.

“The Department provided legal advice that the plans can lawfully be made, and the targets comply with the principles of the Water Management Act.

“When it comes to managing water in NSW my view is healthy rivers, healthy farms, and healthy communities. Not one or the other.”

At the time of writing, the Barrier Truth cannot confirm whether changes to the Water Sharing Plans have been given concurrence by the Environment Minister.

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