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NSW ‘drastically understated’ irrigators’ share of Darling

Friday, 22nd December, 2017

By Craig Brealey

A former senior officer with the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has accused the NSW Government of drastically understating the volume of water taken by upstream cotton farmers.

The government’s claim that the irrigators use only six per cent of the water in the Barwon-Darling rivers was false and misleading, according to a report published this week by Maryanne Slattery.

This was due to the government using figures based on average flows in the Darling River from last century when there were two massive floods at Menindee, according to research by Ms Slattery for the Australian Institute.

The floods in 1950 and 1956 distorted averages, giving a false expectation of how much water was available, said Ms Slattery who wrote the report with the Australia Institute’s Director of Research, Rod Campbell.

The government had also ignored the fact that flows in the Barwon-Darling were among the most variable in the world. Therefore, each year had to be assessed based on the water that was actually, not theoretically, in the river. 

The Australia Institute is an independent public policy think tank in Canberra which is funded by donations. Since it was founded in 1994, it has published research on a range of economic, social and environmental issues.

After the allegations of water being stolen by cotton farmers in collusion with NSW Government bureaucrats were made on Four Corners in July, the NSW Regional Water Minister, Niall Blair, claimed that only six per cent of water in the Barwon-Darling was available for irrigation and the rest went downstream for towns, properties and the environment. 

But this claim appeared to be based on flows at the cotton-growing town of Bourke, and not Menindee, according to the report.

“It is based on average flows since 1944 of 3,300,000 megalitres (ML). This includes the 1950 and 1956 floods, two years that had flows almost equal to the driest 50 years. 

“Average flows this century average just 1,800,000 ML.” 

It also ignored the fact that upstream irrigators have been allowed to take 300 per cent of their water allocation every year, the report said.  

“This means that they can take 41 per cent of the average flows at Menindee, based on the average flow this century, leaving just 59 per cent for downstream users and the environment. 

“That is, 567,000 megalitres and not 189,000 is available for production in any given year.”

Last month Mr Blair told the ABC’s Lateline program that: “We have water sharing plans in New South Wales and in the Barwon-Darling. Six per cent of water is allocated for productive use. 

“That leaves the rest to be able to be used for environmental flows and environmental use of the river systems.” 

According to the Australia Institute, Mr Blair appeared to be quoting the six per cent statistic from a “fact sheet” produced by former NSW Water Minister, and MP for Barwon-Darling, Kevin Humphries, which stated: that: “On average, 3,300,000 megalitres flow past Menindee each year.” 

But the Australia Institute said this figure was based on the average for flows at Bourke over the past 73 years.   

“By contrast, the flows past Menindee (measured at Wilcannia) are substantially lower, as the river winds its way slowly through flat, dry country, with substantial water lost en route to seepage and evaporation. 

“Over the same time period, the annual average flow at Menindee was about 2,400,000 ML.”  

Also, the average flow at Bourke in the middle of the last century was much higher than it has been this century, the report said. 

“Between 1944-1979, average flow was over 4,300 GL per year, substantially higher than Mr Humphries’ claimed 3,300 GL average. 

“However, the 1980s average is less than this figure and the 1990s were lower still. This century, average flows past Bourke are just 1,800 GL, almost half of Mr Humphries’ claim.”    

Ms Slattery said that making the Murray-Darling Basin Plan work was hard enough without government resorting to the use of unreliable statistics.

“The challenges in implementing the Basin Plan are not assisted by politicians citing figures that are wildly misleading,” she wrote. 

“Australia’s water management issues need transparency and meaningful analysis, not spin for political gain. 

“The NSW Water Ministers are misleading the downstream users in the Lower Darling and South Australia about how much water is actually left in the river.”

Mr Blair was invited to comment on Ms Slattery’s report and yesterday a spokeswoman from his office issued the following reply:

“Water sharing plans establish rules to share water between towns, domestic and stock purposes, aboriginal cultural uses, growing food and fibre, and a healthy environment.

“The models underpinning our water sharing plans are based on all historical river flow data, from zero flows through to floods.”

Last month Ms Slattery appeared on the same Lateline program as Mr Blair and said that when she worked for the Murray-Darling Basin Authority she had sought to investigate allegations that cotton farmers had taken water from the Barwon-Darling when there was an embargo on pumping.

“(Senior management) was very critical of me personally to be undertaking the project,” she told the program.

“They just didn’t want to know about it.”

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