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Cotton farms help themselves to flood water

Saturday, 29th September, 2018

By Craig Brealey

Large cotton farms can bulldoze floodplains on Crown land and divert water straight into their dams without fear of prosecution, a Queensland irrigator has told the Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission.

Chris Lamey runs a farm with his father on the McIntyre River, west of Goondiwindi, where they grow barley, wheat, chick peas and sometimes cotton. Queensland is on one side of the river and NSW the other.

Mr Lamey told the commission that he reported his neighbour’s illegal diversion of flood water to all levels of government and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority two years ago, but nothing had come of it.

“We felt we were a minnow fighting a giant where money buys a result,” Mr Lamey told Commissioner Bret Walker SC.

“And we thought we were fighting for the rest of the Basin to have the water, because we only want the river to flow as per normal.”

Mr Lamey said the property next door had been bought in 2012 by a cotton corporation which started altering the land the following year.

At first it was a bridge over the river which rested on Crown land in NSW and Queensland, he said, but neither state accepted the responsibility of prosecuting the company for building an illegal structure. 

Mr Lamey said he was told that the bridge was now a “controlled structure” and therefore, a protected feature of the river. 

“A controlled structure, by their definition, cannot be touched. It’s part of the river. There’s no going back. 

“It just seems a bit odd that if the State didn’t build it and God didn’t put it there, nonetheless it has become a protected feature.”

The bridge, built into the banks, also narrowed the river. Combined with the illegal channels, dams, levies and roads, this caused Mr Lamey’s farm to be flooded.

In 2016 when his family’s $1.4 million chick pea crop was destroyed by floodwater that also cut the road to his property, he sought to have action taken against the cotton farm.

Commissioner: “And you have raised this as a grievance with various official agencies, local council, state government, etcetera; is that right?” 

Mr Lamey: “Yes, 74 in all, bureaucrats, I believe.” 

He said he had also made a claim for damages but the cotton farm’s insurance company had stalled it.

“They wouldn’t cover the insurance until the earthworks were deemed to be illegal.” 

Mr Lamey tried to have the Queensland Government prosecute the company and provided evidence including photographs, dates and video. To date, nothing had been done and he had not even received a reply from the Natural Resources Minister.

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority, for its part, said it could not prosecute because the stolen water was not entering the Basin catchment, Mr Lamey said.

Because diverting that water did not involve the use of pumps, no meters were required, he said. 

“And I felt it all rested on me. There was no legislation in Queensland, whether it be local or state, that provided for the water to flow in a natural manner, even though they had agreed to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan,” he said. 

“There should be the legislation to protect that water because it’s only the river’s water. It’s out on the flood plain for a short period of time and then it will drop back into the river where it will continue flowing down to benefit the rest of the Basin. 

“Every drop of rain that becomes run-off should end up in the river. The Murray-Darling Basin does not have that catchment because the water is being intercepted.”

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