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Report says MP’s plan can’t work

Tuesday, 11th December, 2018

Maryanne Slattery, Kevin Humphries Maryanne Slattery, Kevin Humphries

By Craig Brealey

MP Kevin Humphries’ plan to save the Menindee Lakes doesn’t hold water, according to a new investigation.

Last month, Mr Humphries, the outgoing Member for Barwon, revived a proposal that would allow the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to draw on Lake Cawndilla for downstream supplies and leave the other lakes alone.

“Option 7”, as he called it, would wholly replace the six options in the “Menindee Lakes Water Saving Project” which have been roundly rejected by everyone from Wentworth to Menindee.

Yesterday, The Australia Institute in Canberra released its examination of Mr Humphries’ proposal. It found that its aim of saving the lakes and reviving Menindee could not be achieved.

“While this proposal sounds appealing, it faces major administrative, political and practical hurdles,” said Maryanne Slattery and Roderick Campbell in their report.

Not least of the obstacles would be the renegotiation of the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, the authors said.

“Irrigators in other parts of the Basin have not only been promised some of the water out of Menindee, those promises have been legislated through amendments to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in the Australian Parliament. 

“Delivering Mr Humphries’ solution will require the Commonwealth, Queensland, NSW, Victorian, and SA governments to agree to change the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement.” 

(Option 7) appeared to cut Victoria’s share of water from Menindee Lakes, making it harder for Victoria to fulfil its obligations to South Australia, the report said. 

“Similarly, the proposal could reduce the amount of water going from Menindee Lakes to NSW’s commitment to SA. This reduction would need to be made up by irrigators in the NSW Murray.  

“It will be a brave politician that will tell irrigation communities in the Murrumbidgee and Goulburn that they will have less water, breaking promises made over many years.”  

Mr Humphries’ plan also suggests that if Lake Menindee had been controlled by NSW it could not have been drained by the MDBA in 2013 and 2016/17, but NSW already had the power to stop that, the report said.

Another concern, it said, was his proposal to reverse the direction of the Penellco Channel and enlarge it to send water from Lake Cawndilla to the Lower Darling. 

But the channel is owned by and runs through Webster Ltd’s Tandou Station, therefore the feasibility, legality and cost of the Penellco proposal would have to be assessed.  

Menindee was once a “charmed place,” Ms Slattery and Mr Campbell wrote, where orchards and grape vines grew, the town flourished and the desert lakes were a mecca for birds, fishing, boating and tourism. 

But in 2003 the lakes dried up due to drought, climate change and over-extraction from the river in northern NSW and southern Queensland. 

The floods of 2010 and ’16 filled them again but each time they were drained by the MDBA, and in June this year the Australian government passed legislation to make this “the new normal for Menindee,” the report said. 

“The Murray-Darling Basin Plan increased the legal limit of irrigation extraction in the Murrumbidgee and Goulburn valleys by 106GL. The increase was based on a Menindee Lakes Water Saving project which proposes to save evaporation by holding less water in the lakes and leaving the Lower Darling dry more often.  

“Under the project, irrigation is no longer viable in the region.”

Locals could not be blamed for seizing on Mr Humphries’ proposal, and concern for them was long-overdue, but Option 7 was unlikely to provide a “Hollywood ending” to the tragedy, the report concluded.  

“The constituents of Menindee and the Lower Darling are competing with much larger and more politically powerful irrigation communities and industry in the Northern Basin, the Murray, Murrumbidgee and the Goulburn valleys.    

“The communities of the Lower Darling have been increasingly voicing their objections to the Menindee Water Saving Project, as a NSW election approaches in March and a Federal election likely in May 2019. 

“It is hard to escape the conclusion that Option 7 is aimed at managing discontent until after the elections.    

“This paper poses important questions that the Lower Darling community should put to the NSW and Federal Water Ministers, NSW Department of Industry and the MDBA before Mr Humphries rides out of town, and the sun sets on his political career.”    


** The Australia Institute is an independent public policy think tank founded in 1994 and funded by donations.

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