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Independent MP challenges government over water plans

Thursday, 12th March, 2020

Justin Field Justin Field

By Craig Brealey

Controversial water sharing plans for the lower Darling River will not be audited nor even reviewed for up to 17 years, according to documents released under Freedom of Information laws.

The documents were obtained by Independent NSW MP, Justin Field, who said the NSW Government was breaching the Water Management Act 2000 under which there is a legal requirement for the Natural Resources Commission (NRC) to review a water sharing plan within five years.

Mr Field said the government would therefore be able to “significantly amend” the plan without a report on whether it had even delivered its environmental, economic and social objectives. 

This will also apply to the Namoi, Gwydir, Murrumbidgee, Murray and Macquarie regulated river systems.

Mr Field said the Government was trying to avoid independent scrutiny of the remaking of water sharing plans. 

“The NRC is one of the only tools it has to ensure transparency and it is being cut out of the process,” he said. “That breeds more distrust.

“This Government doesn’t like independent scrutiny because when we have it, everything the Government does is found to be dodgy.”

Among the documents obtained by Mr Field was a letter from former NRC Commissioner, John Keniry, to the then Primary Industries Minister, Niall Blair.

It revealed that the NRC first raised concerns in 2017 that water sharing plans were being repealed and replaced without an independent review as part of the controversial Basin Plan water resource plan development process. 

Another former NRC Commissioner, John Williams, voiced similar concerns yesterday.

Mr Williams said he was “appalled” that the Government might be circumventing important transparency measures around water sharing plans. 

On Tuesday Jim Bentley, Chief Executive Officer of DPIE Water, told a NSW Parliament Budget Estimates hearing that the decision to replace water sharing plans and delay review was an “administrative choice”.

Mr Bentley said it was up to Water Minister Melinda Pavey to decide whether to have water sharing plans reviewed earlier. 

Ms Pavey was asked at the hearing if she would commit to the current five-year NRC review timeline. She replied that she will keep an “open mind to community concerns”. 

NSW is the only state to have not submitted it plans to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. Last week the government suddenly announced that this would be done soon and has called meetings of “stakeholders” that are not open to the public.

The meeting to discuss plans for the lower Darling has been scheduled for Wednesday next week in Deniliquin, 550km from Menindee.

The Central Darling Shire Council and local MP Roy Butler have sought to have meetings held in Broken Hill and Menindee.

Asked about this during the Estimates hearings this week, Ms Pavey replied that a local meeting was not necessary because local stakeholder delegates would be flown to the meetings in Deniliquin.

The BDT has sought to verify this with the Stakeholder Advisory Group that meets in Menindee and Pooncarie. 

Mr Field said holding meetings about plans that nobody trusted nor could now have any faith in would probably make things worse.

“We know that when the Natural Resources Commission was asked to review the Water Sharing Plan for the Barwon-Darling they found that the river was an ‘ecosystem in crisis’ and made several critical recommendations,” he said.

The NRC found that the plan put the Darling in drought three years before the drought began everywhere else because it allowed upstream irrigators to take all of the water.

The water sharing plan had to be rewritten to restore low and medium flows to the river, said Mr Keniry. The government has not acted on his recommendations.

“If the NSW Government and in particular the Nationals as the party with ministerial responsibility for water are not prepared to open themselves to that level of scrutiny on the plans currently being remade, the community is right to ask why,” said Mr Field.

“The process being taken by the NSW Nationals will only serve to further erode trust while protecting those who benefit from the status quo.” 

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