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Report on Darling “wrong”, used for “smear campaign”: Water Minister

Tuesday, 3rd September, 2019

Melinda Pavey and Clayton Barr Melinda Pavey and Clayton Barr

By Craig Brealey

Over-extraction of water upstream had not put the Darling River into drought and “hard-working Australian families” had been damaged by a report that found it had, the NSW Minister for Water, Melinda Pavey, said yesterday.

Mrs Pavey was referring to the Natural Resources Commission’s (NRC) draft report in July which recommended that irrigators be prohibited from taking the low and medium flows that used to keep the river alive.

That changed in 2012 when the government rewrote the rules to not only let irrigators take those flows but save 300 per cent of their annual allocation.

Mrs Pavey said the report, by Commissioner Dr John Keniry, was “wrong” and that it had been used to conduct a “smear campaign” against WaterNSW and the government.

However, the Shadow Water Minister, Clayton Barr, said Mrs Pavey was attacking the NRC’s report because its findings were true.  

“As I recently travelled along the Barwon-Darling River, the most common thing that I heard from locals was that the Commissioner had finally told a truth that locals had been seeing and experiencing for several years - a river system dying a fast and human-influenced death,” Mr Barr told the BDT.

Mrs Pavey was asked by the BDT a week ago if she would adopt Dr Keniry’s recommendation that the Barwon-Darling Water Saving Plan 2012 be rewritten so as to reinstate the flows as a “matter of urgency” before the drought broke. 

“Regional communities, farmers and WaterNSW are the collateral damage of an incorrect statement published in a draft report by the Natural Resources Commission,” she replied yesterday.

The report stated that ‘Expert opinion suggests extractions pushed the river below Bourke into hydrological drought three years earlier’.

“This statement resulted in a smear campaign on my agency WaterNSW, made political with the Leader of the Opposition calling for the Nationals to be stripped of the Water portfolio, and accusing a political party of bringing on the drought three years early,” Mr Pavey said.

“A month after publishing the draft report, the NRC released a technical report showing the statement to be inaccurate, and not backed up by science.

“WaterNSW, who has the information about the river as its manager, was never approached for the facts, and instead was victimised through the media.” 

Two weeks ago WaterNSW did an analysis which demonstrated, said Mrs Pavey, that the upstream extractions had “no impact on the duration of the low flow periods at and below Bourke since the last major inflow event in 2016.

“The fact is, it’s wrong to say that upstream extractions during this period brought the drought forward by three years.” 

Mrs Pavey also said the NRC’s final report was due on Saturday but that the NRC did not publish it.

“I support former Minister Niall Blair in bringing forward the review of the 2012 water-sharing plan. But we will work to the data, not to hypothesise,” she said.

“The report has caused damage to hard-working Australian families by blaming them for an early drought; this is both inaccurate and inexcusable.

“This report informs policy-making decisions of government and cost taxpayers millions of dollars. I’m disappointed the NRC have demonstrated such disregard for process and a severely poor level of professionalism.”  

Mr Barr accused the minister of trying to distract everyone from the immediate problem - flows, extraction and the supply of water to people and the environment.

Dr Keniry had done exactly what was asked of him by the former Water Minister Blair, and conducted a review of the Barwon-Darling Water Sharing Plan 2012, he said.

“The Commissioner has tabled his Interim Report for public comment. The most bizarre incident during this process has been for the new Water Minister, Melinda Pavey, to publicly attack the work of the Commissioner in his preparation of the Interim Report.”

Mrs Pavey had also ignored the fact that the problems had started more than two years ago, said Mr Barr.

“Minister Pavey want us all to focus on water data since January 2017, when we were already in drought. 

“But the epicentre of the Water Sharing Plan problems are actually the five years prior, from 2012 to 2017, when water was available to the river system, environment and community but was, unfortunately, over-extracted, according the Commissioner’s Interim Report.

“We need to remember that while Minister Pavey seeks to attack this one report, the truth is that there are now a range of reports including those from Ken Matthews, the Productivity Commission and others that all point to a common theme of water extraction being at the root of the water problem along the Barwon-Darling system.”

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