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NSW govt cops blast in SA Royal Commission

Friday, 21st September, 2018

By Craig Brealey

The NSW Government “couldn’t manage water in a dunny,” the South Australian Royal Commission into the Murray-Darling Basin has been told.

Stuart Le Lievre, of the Australian Floodplain Association, told Commissioner Bret Walker SC that the government of NSW, in particular, appeared intent on stopping the Darling River being restored to health.

Mr Le Lievre, whose family has owned a sheep station, between Louth and Tilpa on the Darling, since 1869 accused the NSW and federal governments and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority of acting illegally in the interests of upstream cotton corporations.

“I don’t understand why government and bureaucracy is not upholding the law,” he said.

“Why is environment and everything else put down the end, community water put right down the end of the pecking order, when it is the intention of all the (Water) Acts and the plans that it (should be) up the top?”

International conventions also placed the environment and human needs at the top of the list, he said.

“There is a simple fix to all this, but somebody has to get rid of this corporate culture and have a bit of political will.”

Mr Le Lievre and fellow members of the Australian Floodplain Association (AFA) told the commission that in all their dealings with government, NSW was the worst.

“The New South Wales Government couldn’t manager water in a dunny,” he said. 

The AFA holds regular “stakeholder” meetings with water authorities which the members described as futile because those in NSW had been “stripped” of nearly all their experienced staff.

Terry Korn, president of the AFA and a former public servant in the NSW Government, said expertise had been “downgraded” so much that they were now having trouble recruiting skilled staff to undertake the tasks before them following the Four Corners exposé on water theft last year. 

Commissioner: “It looks to be yet another sorry example of what is gruesomely called ‘efficiency reforms’ in the public services.” 

The commission was told that complex documents were given to the AFA only a few days before the meetings, despite requests that they be provided at least two weeks prior, and sometimes they were given no documents at all.

The AFA’s Justin McClure, who has a sheep property between Wilcannia and Bourke, said he doubted the MDBA’s insistent claim that its plan and its review of the northern basin - which resulted in an extra 70 gigalitres being taken from Barwon-Darling rivers and given to cotton farmers - was based on science.

Commissioner: “Was there any detail provided or material made available to you to demonstrate this idea of the MDBA going through science to develop the Northern Basin Review? 

Mr McClure: “None at all.” 

When the federal Labor Opposition opposed the extra 70 gigs for irrigators, the MDBA was very disappointed, Mr Le Lievre said. (Labor backed down and allowed it to pass).

The commissioner asked if he thought it odd that the MDBA appeared partisan.

“Did they give any explanation as to why it was proper for the MDBA, a statutory entity, to be expressing disappointment at what members of Parliament had voted?”

Mr Le Leivre: “No, Mr Commissioner, they did not.” 

The so-called science was nothing more than computer “modelling” which Mr McClure described as a “dark art” because its predictions relied on who happened to punch in the data. 

Commissioner: “A model is not hydrological or biological science. It is very offensive for people to persist in saying you can answer scientific questions with a model. They are tools, ultimately, of not much more than what I will call a logical kind. They are a very complicated algorithm. That’s all they are.” 

The modelling was also based on the average flows in the Darling over 140 years but took no account of the fact that the flows had fallen by two thirds within the last 30 years, said Mr McClure.

Cotton farms first appeared on the Barwon-Darling in the early 1980s.

The MDBA refused to accept that the river system had to be reconnected and not be divided by state boundaries, he said.

The AFA also said that MDBA’s “water sharing plans” did not apply to the Darling and that upstream irrigators were still being allowed to take the water meant for downstream, and not just from the river but from “dodgy” floodplain diversion.

Part of those plans, being pushed by NSW, involved reducing Menindee Lakes’ lowest capacity from 480 gigalitres to 80 and this was being rushed through to have them in place next year, with no explanation and no consultation, they said. 

Mr Korn said that some major irrigator bodies had stated that they did not want such “bad plans” either. 

“They would rather see the time frame deferred and so that a good plan for the next 10 years is in place,” he said.

Mr McClure said Darling River property owners had licences for their small crops of fodder and should be able to irrigate every year.

“Historically, we should have 200 days access to flows which will be sufficient for us to fill our storage of 600 megalitres, and which should give us enough water to water between 50 and 80 hectares annually to grow feed for stock. 

“At the moment we haven’t had access to water for nearly 400 days.” 

Mr Clure said what was happening, just in Wilcannia, showed how twisted and political the Basin Plan had become.

“The Murray-Darling Basin Commission’s objective was to restore the balance,” he said. 

“The result we have now, after $13 billion worth of money spent, is less water being delivered to Wilcannia. 

“The MDBA needs to take control and to dictate the process to the states.”

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