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Perverse policy: Darling ‘in debt’

Friday, 15th March, 2019

The strangulation of the Darling/Barka River was the result of “perverse” government policy that lets irrigators hoard and book up water for cotton, even now in one of the worst droughts in history, a public meeting was told last night.

The river and Menindee lakes are dry, what’s left of the water is polluted and people cannot drink it yet almost 2000 gigalitres have been taken in the north, said Maryanne Slattery from The Australia Institute (TAI).

Less than 11 gigalitres made it to Wilcannia and this season alone 800 GL have been used for cotton but due to government policy the Darling now “owes” water to that industry, Ms Slattery told the packed meeting at the Musicians’ Club.

This was a “direct result” of changes to policy rather than the much-publicised water theft in the northern Basin, she said.

TAI’s new report explaining why the Barwon-Darling has not flowed naturally for years was presented by its authors, Ms Slattery and Bill Johnson.

Mr Johnson, like Ms Slattery, used to work for the Murray-Darling Basin Authority in environmental water policy and planning.

In the Barwon-Darling there was a limit to how much water could be taken and if irrigators took too much, they had to return it.

Because the irrigators owed water to the river in 2011, the government changed the model that calculated the “cap”, or limit. 

Now the river owed 635GL to the irrigators, which was almost enough for this year’s cotton crop.

In years when this water cannot be delivered, the debt is ‘carried over’ to the next year. That means irrigators can take 300 per cent of their allocation when water is available, to make up for past years’ absence.

“They can take four-fold out and not be in breach of the cap,” Ms Slattery said.

“Perversely, the river system is actually in debt to irrigators, owing them water that it does not have.

“They can accrue it indefinitely. When the flow comes they can take all of it.”

Now, because of that and the building of massive dams, growing cotton in drought and very dry years was common, she said.

A graph shown to the audience last night demonstrated that four of the top 11 cotton crops were in years when virtually no water flowed past Bourke.

A farming couple from Narrabri questioned Ms Slattery about TAI’s figures. They said they did not grow cotton, and watered their crops from a bore, and had come to Broken Hill to find out the facts.

She replied that figures related to water taken from all sources and they had come from government and the MDBA itself.

Not everything could be explained because certain information had been denied them, she said.

However, individual irrigators could not be blamed for the disaster on the river, Ms Slattery said.

“It’s not the growers’ fault, or the irrigation industry’s; it is how government policy has been applied. 

“A hundred million dollars has been spent on water that doesn’t exist, with no open tender, but if you point that out (government) says ‘You’ve got an agenda.’”

Government could not admit that the Basin Plan was a failure, she said, and was sowing division to avoid scrutiny, Ms Slattery said.

“You are playing to their agenda if people from the south blame cotton in the north, or irrigators blame the Greens.”

The manufacturers of metering systems had reported that about half the irrigators in the north wanted them and half didn’t, but the fact that meters had never been compulsory in the north was another “clear failure” of government policy, Ms Slattery said.

Now NSW is pushing to legislate the illegal taking of water that overflows from a flooded river to the plains, and she said it was proposing to measure the take with a “painted stick” of the type that marks the water levels in a creek.

Not only that, irrigators will be allowed to “self report” their measurements and they will be “audited once every 10 years.”

“This is not fair on those who do want state of the art measuring systems.

“The leaders of the cotton industry are allowed to get away with it and I don’t think they are doing any favours to the honest individuals. They are going too far.”

Flood water was vital to not only the natural ecosystem but to the towns along the river yet irrigators had been permitted to use government money to pay for their dams and channels to divert that water, Ms Slattery said.

The damage it caused had been know to government for years, she said.

“This has still not been addressed and a lot of work, paid for by the Commonwealth, has allowed a huge increase in growth.

“The MDBA has said that the floodplains will return to a ‘terrestial state’, and that means a desert.

“It has given up on the far west of NSW and is turning it into a desert, and this is happening in other parts of NSW and Victoria.”  

Ms Slattery was questioned about the draining of the Menindee lakes to send water to SA, especially when the Murray was in flood in 2016-17.

Supplying SA from the lakes is part of the Basin Agreement but NSW can call a halt to releases when the lakes drop to 480 GL.

This was not done and NSW blamed the MDBA and SA for insisting on having that water but Ms Slattery said that was a false claim.

“No river operator can release water without instructions. The MDBA can’t make that release with the permission of NSW,” she said.

The fact that the lakes were emptied deliberately at that time, and previously appeared to help make the government’s case for the need of a more reliable supply for Broken Hill than the Darling River, Ms Slattery said.

“It really does play into the Broken Hill pipeline,” she said.

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