Report criticises floodplain harvesting

Calling for change: Riverina irrigators are upset that floodplain harvesting in the northern basin is impacting on other water users. Photo by Dean lewins

Metering of water captured for irrigation use and the removal of illegal structures capturing floodplain waters have been recommended by a NSW parliamentary committee.

The report by the upper house, cross-party committee into floodplain harvesting has been welcomed by Southern Riverina Irrigators.

The report suggests the NSW Water Reform Action Plan include a ‘no meter, no pump’ rule, as recommended by the Independent Investigation into NSW Water Management and Compliance.

Floodplain harvesting in the northern Murray-Darling Basin is the practice of irrigators diverting rainwater into their private dams and has been blamed for reducing flows, impacting on irrigator entitlements, and for contributing to fish kills in the Darling River.

The recommendations calling for an end-of-system flow target for the Darling-Baaka, licensing to the legislated legal limit of the Murry-Darling Basin Cap and abolishing the Healthy Floodplains Review Committee, were all goals sought by Southern Riverina Irrigators.

SRI chair Chris Brooks said his organisation had battled against self-interest groups, hostile departments and those who stood to benefit from a licensing regime well above the legislated legal level of the Murry-Darling Basin Cap.

“All we have ever asked is to see licensing of floodplain harvesting to the cap; not a made-up cap or a cap scenario,” Mr Brooks said.

“The same cap the southern basin has been operating under for years.”

The final report makes 25 recommendations and 14 findings about the need to reduce and manage floodplain harvesting at environmentally sustainable levels and the changes that must be implemented before the NSW Government embeds the practice through a licensing framework.

"The inquiry revealed that there continues to be deep divisions between water users, between basins, between experts and between communities on the merits of floodplain harvesting," Select Committee chair Cate Faehrmann said.

"The committee also heard convincing evidence that the amount of licences the water minister intends to hand out is likely to exceed legislated limits set under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan,“ she said.

“Meanwhile, growth in private storages has increased, yet there has been no proper assessment of the impacts caused by flood works built to capture rain and floods.

"Most importantly, the committee heard that legislated cap and sustainable diversion limits must be adhered to, meaning there must be considerable winding back of a practice which has grown in line with the massively increased capacity for storing water taken from the floodplain or overbank flows.“

NSW Member for Murray Helen Dalton welcomed the report.

“The NSW Government has failed to regulate floodplain harvesting for the past two decades,” Ms Dalton said

“They have allowed too much water to be taken upstream via floodplain harvesting, meaning less river flows down the Darling River.

“It also means Murray and Murrumbidgee irrigators are left with lower allocations.

“These recommendations provide a framework for a more balanced approach — allowing farmers to take water in a sustainable way while ensuring downstream water targets are met.”

State Member for Shepparton Suzanna Sheed said she was concerned NSW Water Minister Melinda Pavey was in “a rush to issue floodplain harvesting licences by Christmas, before proper consideration of the recommendations can be made and an appropriate government response provided”.

Ms Sheed, who made one of the 289 submissions to the committee in August this year, said the committee findings clearly stated there were too many “inadequacies and uncertainties around floodplain harvesting” and that caution should be exercised before any licensing took place.

“In my submission to the inquiry, I called for end-of-valley targets to be met before water was allocated to floodplain harvesters,” she said.

“The powerful findings of the committee and a contention made in many of the submissions by southern basin stakeholders was that floodplain harvesting significantly impacted downstream flows and river health, with economic, social, cultural and environmental consequences.

“Another major impact of these low flows has been the failure of water delivery from the northern basin to the Murray, which has to be made up by southern basin rivers.

“It would be a travesty if, for short-term political gain, the NSW minister ignored the recommendations of the Select Committee and hastily issued floodplain harvesting licences when many significant deficiencies remain.

“These deficiencies relate to volume measurement, illegal structures, water accounting rules, community engagement and transparency.”