‘Death of the river system’: Nationals make it legal to illegally take water from Upper Darling

by Callum Foote | May 5, 2021 | Energy & Environment

The NSW Liberals and Nationals have snuck through floodplain harvesting legislation that allows upstream irrigators to take up to five times (500 %) their licensed water allotments, potentially devastating the already fragile Murray Darling system. Callum Foote reports.

NSW parliament will tomorrow vote on a motion that may decide the very future of the devastated Murray Darling River System.

Nationals MP and Water Minister Melinda Pavey last Friday introduced a scheme that allow floodplain harvesting licences to be issued across Northern NSW. The scheme includes making exceptions to regulations to allow taking without a licence unlimited rainfall runoff.

The regulations would give effect to management rules being established for the five Northern Basin rivers. One of the most controversial rules relates to the ability of holders of floodplain licences to carry over harvesting entitlements that are not taken each year.

The draft rules allow up to 500% of licensed volumes to be taken.


Independent MP Justin Field has put forward a motion to disallow the regulations. Parliament will vote at 10:30 tomorrow morning.

According to Fields, “If we don’t get this right, the NSW Government risks handing out billions of dollars’ worth of unsustainable floodplain harvesting licences. Future generations will be forced to then buy them back to save our rivers.”

Last year the Natural Resources Access Regulator was considering prosecuting irrigators who engaged in floodplain harvesting. This is because it is still unclear whether floodplain harvesting is illegal or if it operates in a grey area.

Rob McBride, owner of Tolarno, Peppora and Wyoming Stations, which cover half a million acres in NSW’s west, says that if these regulations are allowed, it would mean the death of the river system.

“This is the worst deliberate destruction of the Australian river system in our nation’s history. Why sacrifice the $23 billion of produce that relies on the Murray Darling system for the $1.5 billion cotton industry?”

“Pavey and the National party have no relevance to the bush whatsoever. They serve one master, the cotton industry,” says McBride.

Rob McBride

Darling River grazier Rob McBride is backing efforts to protect the Fitzroy River in the hope of preventing another Murray-Darling Basin situation.

He also noted that nowhere else was a commodity as valuable as water allowed to be taken and stored for free by corporations as the new regulations allow.

The licensing scheme proposed by Pavey does not guarantee, or set end-of-valley targets to secure, water needs for lower Darling communities or the environment.

Opponents claim that the scheme is in breach of measures to ensure floodplain harvesting is capped at 1994 levels as required under the Murray Darling Basin Cap.

On-farm water storage by Northern Basin irrigators has increased by 142 per cent since 1994, from 520 to 1,474 gigalitres in 2018-19, according to a report issued last year by water consultancy Slattery and Johnson.

The new scheme heavily favours big upstream irrigators. NSW Farmers Association and irrigators such as Coleambally Irrigation support the scheme

Minister Pavey’s parliamentary diary notes 17 scheduled meetings over water issues between 1 January and 31 March this year.

Of these, 10 were with industry groups, councils or companies in areas upstream that stand to benefit from the proposed licensing scheme. These include the Peel Valley Water Users, Gwydir Valley Irrigators, and a branch of the NSW Farmers Association that is lobbying for the change.

Late last year, Pavey also met with the Australian Floodplain Association.

In contrast, Pavey has met with only three groups from the lower Darling, who stand to lose under the new licensing arrangements.

Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party MP Helen Dalton, who supports the motion to disallow the scheme, has been trying to implement a register of water holders’ since being elected in 2019.

“Scientifically Indefensible”: how a $13 billion political fix is killing the Murray Darling Basin

Callum Foote is a reporter for Michael West Media.
Callum can be contacted on [email protected]

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