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Royal Commission hears damning testimony

Saturday, 21st July, 2018

By Emily Roberts

The former NSW Water Commissioner for the Office of Water believes the proposed pipeline is not the best way to guarantee Broken Hill’s water security.

David Harriss, the former NSW Water Commissioner, said during his testimony at the Murray-Darling Basin SA Royal Commission that he was against the pipeline and thought there were other measures that could have been taken.

He also believes he was “moved on” from his role after endorsing a project to improve metering for irrigators.

“In terms of security of supply to Broken Hill, I did not agree with the current proposed pipeline for Broken Hill,” he said during the week.

“There’s an aquifer at the offtake of the Great Darling Anabranch which is available but it’s virtually prehistoric water. 

“There was another aquifer further downstream of the Menindee Lakes and another aquifer on the North West side of Lake Menindee.

“When that lake is filled, the aquifer on the North West side of Lake Menindee recharges.

“When the lake is dry, that aquifer could supplement Broken Hill’s water supply.”

Mr Harriss said it was “convenient” that Broken Hill was running out of water.

“Broken Hill had never run out of water,” he said. 

“So by undertaking the works which has more water, more frequent than the upstream lakes, which provides the offtake to Broken Hill, they would in fact be increasing their security of water supply even though they have never run out of water.

“It has only been in recent years where we have had some issues where Broken Hill water supply has been threatened. 

“So I maintain - and I still maintain that the works would increase the volume of water in the upstream lakes which feed Broken Hill’s water pipeline.”

He said the development of the Lakes Supply Project would have seen a reduction in evaporation in the Lakes if undertaken correctly.

“The idea of the Menindee Lakes Supply Project is to keep Lake Cawndilla empty to reduce the surface area subject to evaporation; Lakes Wetherell and Pamamaroo in the Menindee Lakes Scheme always fill first. The upper lake, Wetherell, is now the main upper lake. 

“Since the main weir and levy were put in, it has become a combination of the four smaller lakes and the adjacent floodplain. 

“It is preferable to draw down Lake Wetherell so that the water is in channel rather than over the floodplain; Lake Menindee is shallower than Lake Cawndilla. 

“Cawndilla is a deeper, more efficient lake, but it’s not connected back to the Lower Darling river.

“Instead, it is a naturally terminal lake. As in many lakes in this part of the state, water would pass into Lake Menindee and then flow back out. During a long flood, water would fill up Menindee and pass into Cawndilla.”

Mr Harriss suggested that extending the Menindee weir pool could have also guaranteed water long into the future for Broken Hill; rather than $500 million for the pipeline.

“It had been suggested many years ago when the NSW Department was generating water savings for the Living Murray, for $7 million you could increase the size of the pipeline in the Anabranch and extend it so it comes to the Menindee weir pool and thereby guarantee Broken Hill’s water supply.

“But I am not in favour of drying out Lake Cawndilla permanently.”

Mr Harriss also suggested that there were “cultural issues in the north, in relation to licensing and compliance” among irrigators.

He said in April 2014, when Barwon MP Kevin Humphries became the junior minister with responsibility for water under primary industries minister Katrina Hodgkinson, that “compliance was not a priority”.

He claimed cotton interests in the Barwon-Darling were extremely influential in determining water policy in NSW and that he struggled to get NSW water ministers to take steps to protect environmental flows in the Barwon-Darling.

Mr Harriss also stated he was “moved on” from the Office of Water in 2014.

He endorsed irrigator metering.

“One project I endorsed was metering. It was estimated it would cost $220 million to get new updated meters for about 80 per cent of irrigators.

“Many of the old meters were mechanical - they wear out and don’t record properly. An engineering company estimated they would generally under-record by about eight per cent in favour of the farmer.”

Irrigators wrote to Minister Hodgkinson saying that by 2016 they would fund their own meters.

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