Independent NSW MP, Justin Field, has revealed through documents provided under freedom of information laws, that water sharing plans in some of the state’s most contentious river systems will be significantly amended without a legally required review by the Natural Resources Commission (NRC).
Media reporting confirmed that the Namoi, Gwydir, Lower Darling, Murrumbidgee, Murray and Macquarie regulated river systems will operate without review for 12 to 17 years, despite a legal requirement under the Water Management Act 2000 for the NRC to review each water sharing plan within five years of its cease date (water sharing plans have a 10 year duration) and report on whether it has delivered its environmental, economic and social objectives.
A letter, attached, from former NRC Commissioner, John Keniry, to the then Primary Industries Minister Niall Blair, has revealed the NRC first raised concerns in 2017 that water sharing plans were being repealed and replaced without an independent review as part of the controversial Basin Plan water resource plan development process. Another former NRC Commissioner, John Williams, voiced similar concerns on ABC Riverina and said he was “appalled” that the Government might be circumventing important transparency measures around water sharing plans.
Evidence given yesterday in a NSW Parliament Budget Estimates hearing by Jim Bentley, Chief Executive Officer of DPIE Water, provided that the decision for DPIE Water to replace water sharing plans and apply extended cease dates without NRC review was an “administrative choice” and that it is within NSW Water Minister Melinda Pavey’s discretion to review water sharing plans earlier. When asked to commit to the current NRC review timeline, Minister Pavey refused, responding instead that she will keep an “open mind to community concerns”.
Mr Field said, "The NSW Nationals have delayed the preparation of water resource plans and now using the compressed timelines of their own making to avoid independent scrutiny of the remaking of water sharing plans in NSW. The brinkmanship by Minister Pavey and NSW Deputy premier John Barilaro over the Murray Darling Basin Plan has been an added distraction.
"It's all well and good to have the current public consultation process over the water resource plans being developed for submission to the Murray Darling Basin Authority, but without a deep dive by a trusted independent body like the NRC, the issues with the existing plans won't be easily identified and could exacerbate the significant water challenges we've seen during the drought.
"We know that when the Natural Resources Commission was asked to review the Water Sharing Plan for the Barwon Darling they found that the river was an "ecosystem in crisis" and made a number of critical recommendations.
"If the NSW Government and in particular the Nationals as the party with ministerial responsibility for water are not prepared to open themselves to that level of scrutiny on the plans currently being remade, the community are right to ask themselves why?
"The effect of the Government's process for remaking the plans will be to delay a formal statutory review of many of the state's most contentious water sharing plans, many of which are likely to have similar issues to those found in the Barwon Darling review.
"Independent oversight and transparency in water decisions is critical to rebuilding trust in water planning in NSW. The process being taken by the NSW Nationals will only serve to further erode trust while protecting those who benefit from the status quo."