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$500 million to reach the Murray but; Who pays? Won’t say

Saturday, 29th July, 2017

NSW Shadow Water Minister Chris Minns (second from left) with Mayor Darriea Turley and members of the BH and Darling River Action Group Darryn Clifton, Mark Hutton, Tom Kennedy and Ross Leddra yesterday. PICTURE: Andrew Robertson NSW Shadow Water Minister Chris Minns (second from left) with Mayor Darriea Turley and members of the BH and Darling River Action Group Darryn Clifton, Mark Hutton, Tom Kennedy and Ross Leddra yesterday. PICTURE: Andrew Robertson

By Andrew Robertson

The state government has rejected calls to scrap or delay construction of the Murray River pipeline, saying there is “no doubt whatsoever” it remains the best solution to the city’s water problem.

Regional Water Minister Niall Blair’s office yesterday said that while Monday’s Four Corners program raised “very serious issues” about alleged water theft, Broken Hill’s lack of water security was due to drought and evaporation.  

Mr Blair continues to refuse to release the business case for the contentious pipeline, this time blaming commercial sensitivity around the construction tender process that is now underway.

But Shadow Water Minister Chris Minns, who visited the Menindee Lakes yesterday, suspects the real reason is because it will reveal the pipeline’s true cost to residents.

When the pipeline was announced last year then Premier Mike Baird said residents would be expected to pay a portion of recurrent costs which will be set by the pricing regulator IPART.

But Mr Minns said residents faced years of higher water charges to pay for a pipeline they might not need while being denied access to the very business case underpinning the decision to build it.

“My suspicions about the business case is that who is going to cover the recurrent costs, because the rate base of Broken Hill isn’t big enough?

“Once you invest this kind of capital there’s no going back and then that cost has to be distributed across a very limited rate base.”

Mr Minns said the cost of running Sydney’s billion dollar desalination plant was able to be spread over a much larger rate base yet was still costing every household $96 a year.

Scepticism surrounding the pipeline heightened this week following allegations that billions of litres of water were pumped illegally by two major cotton growers on the upper Barwon-Darling.

City Council joined calls for a Royal Commission into the abuse of water sharing in the system and for the compliance unit that investigates water extraction on behalf of the government to be reinstated.

Mayor Darriea Turley’s motion also seeks a moratorium on construction of the Murray pipeline until the state government releases the business case proving it is the best option for the city.

A meeting of Barkandji traditional owners has gone even further, calling for the pipeline to be scrapped and for the existing Menindee pipeline to be restored.  

Mr Minns, who also met with Mayor Turley and members of the BH and Darling River Action Group, said he supported council’s calls for the government to properly police compliance on the river system.

Mr Blair’s office has sought to downplay the significance of the alleged theft, saying the water licenses involved accounted for about six per cent of the total amount of water used for production, town water supply, and stock and domestic use in the Barwon-Darling system.

In contrast, a spokeswoman said the Menindee Lakes lost an average of 420 gigalitres each year to evaporation.

“From 2012 to 2015 three summer wet seasons failed in row, and this is why Broken Hill’s water supply was in jeopardy,” she said. 

“This is why the NSW Government is fixing the problem with a pipeline from the Murray River.

“There is no doubt whatsoever the pipeline is the best solution to this problem.”

But Mr Minns said no-one knew how much water was being taken from the river system illegally because the government wasn’t investigating compliance breaches.

“The first thing that needs to happen before any of these major, half billion dollar capital programs are put underway is enforcement of the (extractions) coming out of the Darling upstream,” he said.

“We don’t know how much is being taken out of the river system that could fill up the Menindee Lakes that could service Broken Hill (and) potentially save all of us a lot of time and money.

“The message I received today was that (prior) to 2000 Broken Hill didn’t have a problem (with water security).”

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