Basin plan ‘condemns’ the Darling
Saturday, 17th September, 2011
By Craig Brealey
The people of Broken Hill and everyone else who relies on the Darling river will be no better off when the next drought hits if the Murray-Darling Basin Authority proceeds with its latest plan, according to local river activists.
Cotton farms around the NSW-Queensland border will get to keep most of their water and just 140 gigalitres will be taken from irrigators and returned to the Darling if the Murray-Darling Catchment Authority’s draft figures are adopted, said the Darling River Action Group.
In the whole of the basin 2,800 gigalitres would be put back into the river system, which was more than a thousand gigs less than the MDBA had originally proposed.
It was also nearly 5,000 gigalitres less than what water scientists had calculated was needed to bring the river system back to health, DRAG’s secretary, Barney Stevens said yesterday.
“One hundred and forty extra gigalitres in the Darling isn’t going to help it very much,” Mr Stevens said.
“The water that enters the Darling River almost all comes from its various tributaries. Each of these tributaries needs environmental water for its own wetlands, for example, the Macquarie Marshes and Gwydir Wetlands, which have been starved for decades, and the floodplains.
“Only after these are satisfied will water flow out of the tributaries into the Darling River.”
The MDBA proposal gives the amount of the cutbacks in extraction for each tributary, and a ‘shared’ reduction to be spread over all of the tributaries.
The figures show that the in-valley cutback for the Gwydir River has been achieved, the cutback for the Macquarie-Castlereagh exceeded and that the excess will go to ‘shared’ reductions.
But extractions by irrigators on the Namoi and Border rivers, which provide the most uninterrupted flow into the Darling, would hardly be reduced at all, Mr Stevens said.
Meanwhile, extractions from the Condamine-Balonne river system, where Cubbie Station has a weir across the Culgoa River, have been cut by only six gigalitres, he said.
There 706 gigalitres are diverted for cotton growing and the MDBA had stated it wanted that cut back by 150 gigs.
But so far only six gigs had been recovered, Mr Stevens said, and there was little chance they would get any more.
“Given the irresponsible attitudes of the big cotton growers in that area and the recent abundance of water, it is difficult to see how such a volume of water licences can be obtained by voluntary sales,” he said.
Irrigators on the Condamine-Balonne had been selling their water to pay off their loans from the banks, but now with all the water they could continue planting crops, Mr Stevens said.
He also said he found it “incredible” that 189 gigalitres could still be taken by irrigators from the channel of the Barwon-Darling and that no more reduction was being proposed by the MDBA.
“This is despite there being a cap on extraction of 173 gigalitres per year (on average).
“The proposed outcome is bad news for the Darling River and its floodplains, for the river towns and Broken Hill, for the Menindee Lakes, and especially for downstream in the lower Darling, the lower Murray and South Australia.
“At times when the Murray River has been unable to supply water to South Australia, the Darling River has been a lifeline for the irrigators, for Adelaide’s water supply, and for the Lower Lakes and Coorong.
“After the recent drought broke, the Darling flowed months before the Murray, and probably saved the lower lakes from a disastrous acid sulphate build-up.
“Some people in South Australia are aware of how important the Darling is to them.”
He said that, for instance, when the Murray was flowing with black, de-oxygenated water, the Darling was running fresh flows into it and keeping the fish alive.
Mr Stevens also said that the 2,800 gigalitre figure was unlikely to fulfill the legal requirement of the Water Act which stated that the rivers had to be restored to a healthy state.