Irrigator and environment groups unite to protect Murray Darling

An unprecedented alliance of irrigation representatives and environment peak bodies have called on the NSW Premier, Treasurer and Environment Minister to oversee changes to Murray Darling water rules.

The groups include representatives of a majority of NSW irrigators and the environmental peak bodies of all Basin states.

The practice of diverting floodwater, known as floodplain harvesting, has long been unregulated. Primarily used to grow cotton in the north of the Basin, the practice has contributed to impacts such as the 2019-20 fish kills and reduced water availability for downstream irrigators.

A NSW Parliamentary Committee is set to hand down recommendations for reform in December.

The groups sent a briefing note to the Premier and other MPs titled Six reasons to stop floodplain harvesting that highlights key issues around floodplain harvesting:

  • Damage to river environments such as the 2019-20 fish kills.
  • Damage to human and mental health in downstream communities.
  • Damage to other agriculture, including irrigators in the Southern Basin.
  • Lost jobs, as water is diverted away from job-intensive food, dairy and wine crops to more capital-intensive cotton exports.
  • Risk of legal challenges if licences are issued unlawfully.
  • Potential multi-billion dollar compensation claims if licences need to be bought back.

The Australia Institute Research Director Rod Campbell said: “This is a big deal for the whole Murray Darling Basin and all of its rivers and people. It must not get lost in the end of year scramble.

“Floodplain harvesting reform needs oversight from the highest levels of government as there are big implications for the state budget, employment, human health and more.

“Without attention from the public, the Premier, Treasurer and other MPs, this huge reform could be derailed by the powerful agribusinesses that benefit from the status quo.”

Nature Conservation Council Acting Chief Executive Jacqui Mumford said:

“Floodplain harvesting works against the best principles of water sharing and the common good.

“It is so harmful to the ecosystems we all depend on that it should be considered not just illegal but anti-social.”

Chris Brooks Chairman of Southern Riverina Irrigators said: “Irrigators in the southern Murray Darling Basin are negatively affected by this unregulated practice.

“This is important not just for us, but for all the rice mills, wine makers and other processors that we supply.

“The cotton grown with unregulated floodwater in the north, by contrast, is exported with almost no processing done in Australia.”

Maryanne Slattery of water research consultancy Slattery & Johnson said: “The approach of the NSW Government so far has created major legal and financial risks.

“There is now an opportunity for the Select Committee and the Government to move in a different direction and get it right.

Conservation Council of South Australia CEO Craig Wilkins said: “Restoring the Darling/Baaka is important not just for NSW, but also for South Australia.

Environment Victoria Healthy Rivers Campaigner Tyler Rotche : “All Basin states are watching this reform and the details around diversion limits.”

Water Policy Officer at Queensland Conservation Council, Nigel Parratt: “When irrigators, environmental groups and researchers can agree on water policy, there’s no reason the government shouldn’t also.”

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