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‘Halve’ allocations

Friday, 13th September, 2019

Bill Johnson Bill Johnson

By Craig Brealey

The desperation being felt as rivers run dry, fish die by the millions and towns run out of water and income should not distract us from the original cause of the problem, says a former water manager for the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. 

The massive over-extraction of water for irrigation had brought us to this state and it would get worse unless government cut all water allocations by half, according to Bill Johnson who worked for the MDBA for nine years in the northern basin.

Even now, government was discussing the licensing of floodplain irrigation which would result in even more water being taken in northern NSW and Queensland, Mr Johnson said yesterday.

Compared to this, the water being held back from the Darling River at Toorale Station was nothing, he said.

“There are about 14,000 megalitres in storage at Toorale and at least four million megalitres can be held in farm storages in the northern basin catchment of the Darling,” Mr Johnson said. 

Toorale, at the junction of the Warrego and Darling rivers, was bought by the Commonwealth in 2008 to put water in the Darling.

But it was not until last week that the NSW Government announced plans to remove its old dams and levee banks and replace them with concrete weirs.

The government had been too slow but the Warrego River had never provided a reliable flow to the Darling, Mr Johnson said.

The water now in Toorale’s dams came from the big floods in Queensland in April and it would not have reached Menindee, he said.

“Some water came through but for it to get to Menindee, 10,000 megalitres would have to have reached Wilcannia and it only got 2000.

“People are upset and angry and that can stop you thinking clearly, but this is distracting everyone from the big issue: the harvesting of water from the floodplains on the Darling River’s tributaries.

“Thousands of megalitres more is being given to irrigators as a tradeable right.”

This was yet another failure of government, state and federal, to manage the Murray-Darling river system sensibly, said Mr Johnson, who worked for 30 years in water management and policy for the Commonwealth and NSW governments. 

Last year he gave evidence to the South Australian Royal Commission’s Murray-Darling Basin inquiry, and in 2017 to a senate inquiry into the water market in the Basin that was held in Broken Hill.

“A series of governments gave away too much water over many years,” he said. “This is a fundamental failure. They’ve taken their hands off the wheel.”

A good example of such neglect is Cubbie Station in Queensland, the first of the huge cotton farms, and the one still regarded by many as the villain of the piece.

Mr Johnson said others copied its methods and established themselves on its tributaries.

“Now Cubbie doesn’t get any water,” he said.

Neither do places below it in Queensland and north-eastern NSW that rarely had a supply problem before.

“The people of Wilcannia, Menindee, the Lower Darling, Broken Hill, Bourke, Louth have suffered for years, and now we’ve got towns like Warren and Tamworth running out of water. It’s spreading up the system.

“All allocations to irrigators must be cut by 50 per cent, just to supply water to the towns.” 

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