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Brutal truth revealed in business case

Friday, 16th August, 2019

Independent MP Justin Field Independent MP Justin Field

By Craig Brealey

The cotton industry wanted the water in the Menindee Lakes and the NSW Government gave it to them, according to information contained in the business case for the Broken Hill pipeline. 

In 2016, the Cotton Growers Association told the government that it could increase production by $120 million a year if Broken Hill did not have to draw its water from the Menindee Lakes.

The final decision to proceed with the pipeline from Wentworth was based on two key benefits - one to the cotton industry and the other to mining.

The business case did not state any benefits to the environment or to the Barkindji people of the Darling.

Indeed, the name “Barkindji” does not appear in the 168-page document that was released yesterday, three years after it was written.

The business case consists almost entirely of consultants’ reports and one firm, which billed itself as specialists in engaging with Aboriginal people, did not consult with any, although it did speak to the Broken Hill City Council, the Country Women’s Association and the Democratic Club, among others.

Independent MP Justin Field yesterday published the business case which, he said, was given to him by the government after he threatened to take the matter to court.

“They gave me a hard copy,” he said. “The government did not even have the wit to put it on its pipeline website. Why they didn’t show a bit of transparency, even at the last minute, is beyond me.” 

Mr Field said the ‘Final Business Case’ for the $500 million pipeline made it clear that the interests of Northern Basin irrigators and mining proposals in the Broken Hill district were “significant considerations” in the government’s decision to run a pipeline 270km from the Murray River. 

“It seems to have been made on the assumption that it would leave the lakes and the river dry,” he told the BDT.

“Anyway you cut this, the pipeline is a half billion dollar gift to Northern Basin irrigators.” 

Mr Field, a Member of the Legislative Council, said the case revealed what everyone suspected; that decoupling Broken Hill’s water supply from the lakes would reduce the need for flows down the Darling and open up more water for northern irrigators.

After the government announced its intentions in 2016, Cotton Australia was the first to congratulate it: “The pipeline is a win for the community, the environment and irrigating farmers, and a solution Cotton Australia and its allies have long lobbied for.”

But Broken Hill didn’t have a water security problem until cotton growing began taking over the river catchment. Then, in 2012, irrigators were allowed by the NSW Government’s Barwon-Darling Water Saving Plan to take even the low and medium flows. 

In the business case, the first benefit listed is: “avoided costs of water embargoes on Northern Rivers irrigators (ie. loss cotton production)”. 

The Cotton Growers Association estimated that the embargoes on pumping to allow water to flow down the Darling had cost northern irrigators “$60 million in lost production”.

Decoupling the Menindee Lakes from Broken Hill and the government’s proposal to reduce the capacity of the lakes by 80 per cent under its Menindee Lakes Water Savings Plan would give irrigators another 50 gigalitres, the business case says:

“... the Cotton Growers Association estimates that the economic contribution of 50GL of water could be more than $120 million in agricultural output.”

The other main benefit stated was that the pipeline could support new mining, including an expansion of Cristal Mines’ mineral sands operation in Broken Hill and Carpentaria’s proposed iron ore project south of the city.  

The government has consistently denied that irrigation and mining had anything to do with the pipeline. 

Last month the Natural Resources Commission (NRC) review of the Barwon-Darling Water Sharing Plan found that over-extraction in the Northern Basin brought the drought to the Darling three years earlier than upstream. 

The Commission recommended that the government restore the low and medium flows to the rivers as soon as possible.

Mr Field said the government had “manufactured” the crisis on the Darling and that it could get worse.

“Without the need to ensure water in the lakes to provide for Broken Hill’s water supply, the Northern Basin irrigators are going to have their hands out for more. That’s a disaster for the river. 

“The opportunity is there to have the rules on the upper Darling River fixed so that they do guarantee flows and the water isn’t sucked up by irrigators.”

He said the NRC’s recommendations should be brought forward and implemented in full. 

“There is also a need to press pause on the Menindee Lakes Water Savings Project until the full impacts on the health of the river and all users is understood. 

“If the Government fails to implement these as a matter of urgency it shows they are prepared to condemn the river and the Menindee Lakes to death.”

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