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The broken system

Saturday, 5th December, 2015

By Andrew Robertson

He barely escaped the previous two times the Darling River has officially stopped flowing since 2003 and now Allan Whyte is hoping it’s a case of third time still lucky.

Mr Whyte, who operates Jamesville Station, 60km north of Wentworth, and the handful of other fruit growers on the Lower Darling are just months away from potential disaster.

If the Menindee Lakes are not replenished soon, and the remaining water in the Lower Darling dries up, their permanent plantings will run out of water.

Daily releases from the lakes have so far ensured a continuous river to Pooncarie and water for the growers below, but the Department of Primary Industries has said it will stop the flows this month. 

“We’ve got water being held up by block banks, one here at the property and there’s another one at a neighbour’s property just south,” Mr Whyte said.

“That means we won’t run out of water first. We’re sort of hoping we might have enough to get through to the end of February but there is no precision in that.” 

After that, Mr Whyte and the other growers will have to rely on residual pools left in the river and, for the few who had the foresight to sink them, bores on their properties.

“If that then fails I’ll tell my grandkids we tried our best and that’s it. If permanent plantings run out of water the business will fail.

“This is the third time the river has ceased to flow in the last 12 years. We got through the two previous ones, just.”

But while Lower Darling growers watch on as their businesses wilt from lack of water, upstream irrigators who are holding lower security licences are still able to access flows.

Mr Whyte said there was a discussion going on within the Department of Primary Industries around a policy that effectively disadvantages water users based on where they are within the system. 

“If you’re in the upper tributaries even the lowest priority licence in the system operate as per normal, (even) when you can’t supply the highest priority usage which is water for people in towns.

“That’s the bigger picture issue that’s out there now: do you prioritise access to limited flows on a whole of river basis or effectively, as what’s happening now, from the top down?

“At a policy level there’s an issue there and the current approaches work reasonably well in normal years but I don’t think that’s an appropriate vision for the situation we’re in now.

He said one solution would be for the NSW government to ensure there was two years’ reserve in the lakes when control reverts to NSW, as has previously been the policy.

Failing that the six growers have come up with a “pragmatic” proposal that would see the commonwealth purchase their high-security water entitlements. 

The plan would free-up more water for other uses and the river while allowing the six growers to run fewer water-intensive enterprises, Mr Whyte said.    

He said he had “no idea” when a decision was likely to be made on the proposal but that it was in the system and was being taken seriously.

“It will probably be an initial recommendation out of NSW but it will have to be ratified in Canberra, and probably at least approved of in principle by other basin states.

“The proposal has quite a few benefits for other people because of the removal of high-security licences.”

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