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Water rights denial

Tuesday, 2nd October, 2018

Badger Bates Badger Bates

By Craig Brealey

The denial of water rights to the traditional owners of the Darling River and Menindee Lakes was a breach of Commonwealth and State law, the Murray-Darling Royal Commission has heard.

The Barkandji nation has lived on the river and the lakes for tens of thousands of years yet has no say in the management of either, Broken Hill man William Badger Bates told royal commission.

In 2015, the NSW Government granted the Barkandji native title to the land but then removed their water rights, Mr Bates said.

This is contrary to the native title act which states: “The right to take and use of the water for personal, domestic and communal purposes (including cultural purposes).” 

The traditional lands of the Barkandji (who take their name from the Barka, or Darling) go from Menindee to Bourke.

Mr Bates said the Murray-Darling Basin Authority recognised and gave money to the Murray-Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations and the Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations but would not accept that the Barkandji were the traditional owners of the Darling and the lakes.

“One the parliamentarians said that up around Moree there would be 200 jobs for the people but they killed the Menindee Lakes and they took a lot of work from us,” he told Commissioner Bret Walker SC.  

“If it was good for them up there to have work why isn’t it good for black people and white people around Menindee to have work? 

“Wilcannia was the queen city of the west a long time ago. Now you can’t even get a bark canoe up there.” 

Archaeological evidence showed that Aboriginal people had lived on the Barka for 50,000 years, and at least 23,000 at Menindee, but that had been ignored by the MDBA, the Commonwealth and the NSW governments, Mr Bates said.

Commissioner: “And you understand that there are statute laws of the Commonwealth and of NSW that relate to the management of the water?” 

Mr Bates: “Yes, because it states in our native title, Barkandji people got a right to manage water.”

He said much had rightly been made of the threat to native fish stocks if the Darling and the lakes were kept dry but Mr Bates said everything would die. 

“When I was a kid, we would get mussel and all the fish but now there is no cycle for any animal to depend on. That’s bad management. You need water in the river and in the lakes for those things to breed. 

“To me, native title means nothing. I’m a Darling River black. Without the Barka, we’re finished. What’s a bit of land without water? 

“It’s no good what colour you are. They gave us our native title. And just before that, they was mucking around with the lakes. And as soon as we got our native title, they took the water. So it’s worth nothing. 

“It’s not only just my people. It’s the white people that live along that river. We have not got a voice.”  

Mr Bates said the MDBA granted Aboriginal people up around the Culgoa River, above Bourke, a wetland, and those on the Murrumbidgee but refused to give the Barkandji their wetland because that was the Menindee Lakes.

The water for the lakes now stayed upstream for cotton or was rushed downstream as soon as they filled, even when the Murray River was in flood, he said.

As to the Wentworth-Broken Hill pipeline: “They’re letting the water go past here when it floods, go down there to the Murray, and pump it back up here 300 kms. It’s stupid,” said Mr Bates.

He said that if water was not kept in the lakes and the river, the salt would rise and that would poison the Murray as well.

“But they didn’t listen to that, the water people, they started pumping so they’re bringing the salt up. If we don’t protect the Barka or the Murray, South Australia hasn’t got a river.”

Commissioner Walker asked if the Barkandji were consulted by the NSW Department of Primary Industries about the proposed re-engineering of the Menindee Lakes so that Lake Cawndilla would be empty more often and the lakes drained more quickly.

Mr Bates said they had told the DPI this would cause erosion and damage the natural environment but their objections were “chucked out”.

He said it was particularly foolish to empty Cawndilla.

“They complain about evaporation all the time. Cawndilla is the biggest lake. It’s the deepest lake.”

Commissioner: “Was there any response by the people at the meeting ... to your opposition to the Menindee Lakes project?” 

Mr Bates said there was not and neither was the DPI interested in the importance of the lakes as a fish nursery, despite the fact that 80 per cent of the golden perch in the Murray-Darling system were bred in them. 

“We are Australians, the lot of us,” he told the commissioner. 

“If we don’t protect the land and the environment properly, we’re going to have nothing and our kids and our great-grand kids are going to have nothing.” 

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