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Send us clean water ‘whatever it takes’

Thursday, 14th March, 2019

Senator Rex Patrick with Warlpa Thompson (left) and Derek Hardman of the Barkandji Native Title Corporation at the Senate committee hearing in the Civic Centre, yesterday. PICTURE: Supplied Senator Rex Patrick with Warlpa Thompson (left) and Derek Hardman of the Barkandji Native Title Corporation at the Senate committee hearing in the Civic Centre, yesterday. PICTURE: Supplied

By Craig Brealey

The mother of a baby born in December has not been back to her home on the Darling River because she fears for the life of her child, a government inquiry heard yesterday.

“You can’t turn on the taps and have safe drinking water,” Katharine McBride, of Tolarno Station, south of Menindee, told a Senate Committee in Broken Hill.

“It is no place for a newborn,” said Mrs McBride.

The committee was here to take evidence on the need for the Commonwealth to reinstate the practice of buying back water licences from irrigators due to the state of the Darling.

Federal Labor set up the inquiry in the wake of the death of two million fish in the river in January. 

The chairman of the committee is Liberal Senator Jonathon Duniam and he was joined at the hearing by Labor Senator Anne Urquhart and Rex Patrick of the Centre Alliance party.

Tolarno Station was established in 1851 and the records showed that in all that time the river had never been dry for more than three months, Mrs McBride said.

“That was until 2015-16 and now we are experiencing it again.”.

NSW Government plans to cut the storage in the Menindee Lakes by 80 per cent would destroy the river, she said.

“We will have more significant dry periods. It will be dry 75 per cent of the time instead of three per cent, under the NSW plans.”

Mrs McBride supported the reinstatement of water buybacks from upstream irrigators.

“The cap on buybacks was never part of the original Basin Plan and it impedes it.”

But she warned that if it was done on the Lower Darling government would use it as an excuse to send ever less water down the river.

Earlier in the hearing desperate irrigators with high security licences for their orchards and grapes on the Lower Darling said they offered to sell their licences to the Commonwealth four years ago and were still waiting for a reply.

In the meantime, the Commonwealth paid Webster Ltd $78 million for its licence at the Tandou cotton farm.

Two members of the Barkandji Native Title Corporation told the committee that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the NSW Government was denying them justice.

The Barkandji won Native Title in 2015 and that included water yet they had none, said the corporation’s CEO Derek Hardman.

“Our lives are bound to the river but we’ve got nothing. We can’t go swimming, hunting or camping; that’s all been taken away.

“The animals are dying, everything’s dead, even the poor old kangaroos and emus.”

Mr Hardman said Aboriginal people in the northern and southern basins were represented on the MDBA but not the Barkandji.

“It was not until all the fish died that the MDBA and NSW took any interest in them,” he said. 

“If the river didn’t run dry and the fish didn’t die we would still be hitting our heads against a wall.”

However, that interest didn’t count for much, he said. Last month the MDBA invited Barkindji delegates to Canberra for a meeting and promised to pay their way.

“They were there four days and when it was over the MDBA told them it couldn’t afford it, “Mr Hardman said.

He said the Barkandji backed water buybacks and “whatever it takes” to bring water back to the Darling.

Fellow Barkandji Native Title Corporation member, Warlpa Thompson, was asked by Senator Patrick what message he would like to send the government.

“Don’t try and divide the country and override us,” Mr Thompson replied. 

“It took the Darling River to die to bring people together.

“The fact that we have a senator sitting here with a ‘Barka’ shirt on is solid. It is about bringing people together.”

The committee held one other hearing, in Adelaide on Tuesday, when it took evidence from the MDBA and irrigators’ representatives.

Senator Patrick said after yesterday’s meeting that his summary of what had been presented was that it was “split across the lines”.

However, it was apparent that irrigators’ concerns about buybacks hurting irrigation towns were exaggerated, said Sen. Patrick.

He said the Commonwealth and the MDBA had ignored reports, including those by accounting firm KPMG and the Productivity Commission, that giving irrigators taxpayers’ money for “water saving infrastructure” so as to return water to the rivers was far less efficient than buying water licences from them.

“On average, the price of a buyback is $2019 per megalitre. The average cost of an infrastructure project is $5453. That is almost three times more.”

The Productivity Commission had endorsed water buybacks and described the infrastructure spending strategy as “high risk”, he said.

Instead of wasting money on irrigation projects, licences could be bought back and the large savings spent on boosting local economies, as recommended by the Productivity Commission, Sen. Patrick said.

“Three to four times more jobs would be created in things like health and education,” he said, “yet the MDBA has not even looked at it.” 

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