The NSW Legislative Council has overwhelmingly passed a motion against the NSW Government calling on NSW Nationals Water Minister Melinda Pavey to fix a major flaw in the state’s regional water sharing plans which has excluded drought data since 2004, allowing more water to be released to irrigators (SMH report today).
The ‘loophole’ introduced in 2014 has been blamed for leaving rivers and towns exposed to critical water shortages in the worsening 2017-2020 drought and have now been included in redrafted plans which are currently being considered by the Government.
Independent NSW MP, Justin Field, successfully brought together the Labor opposition, One Nation, the Shooters and Fishers, Animal Justice Party and the Greens in calling for the NSW Minister for Water, Melinda Pavey, to immediately amend NSW water plans to include up to date drought data.
Independent NSW MP Justin Field said “The NSW Nationals can't be trusted when it comes to water.
"The NSW Nationals hung their hat on an assumption that another Millennium level drought wouldn’t occur and they were wrong.
“They left regional towns facing critical water shortages, rivers starved, fish kills and massive additional stresses in agricultural and river communities. The current NSW Nationals Water Minister Melinda Pavey is trying to continue that failed approach because it benefits a handful of irrigators.
"Any sensible person would agree that decisions about reserving and allocating water should be made on the most up to date information.
The motion was passed last week in a shortened Covid-19 sitting of the NSW Parliament and followed calls by Tamworth Regional Council for the Water Minister to delay the review of the water sharing plans in order to incorporate the impacts of the current drought on the local Peel and Namoi Rivers.
The NSW water sharing plans are being amended and replaced as a consequence of the Basin Plan process, which requires all states to submit water resource plans to the Murray Darling Basin Authority for accreditation. Earlier this year, these plans sparked controversy when Deputy Premier, John Barilaro, challenged the former Federal Minister for Water, David Littleproud, after he threatened to withhold millions of dollars of federal funding because the plans were overdue.
Minister Pavey has since submitted eleven water resource plans, but the nine remaining govern the most controversial river systems of the Namoi, Barwon Darling, Border Rivers, Macquarie, Gwydir, Lachlan, Murray and Murrumbidgee and will require concurrence by the NSW Minister for Environment, Matt Kean (see Appendix for list of plans).
"Right now we have an opportunity and responsibility to fix these plans before this failed model is locked in for another decade risking future water shortages and further degraded river systems.
"There was overwhelming support for this motion in the Upper House and if the Nationals won't back down and listen to regional communities and the science, the NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean shouldn't give concurrence to these plans. The river belongs to us all and these decisions should be in the public interest, not in the Nationals Party interest.
"Ignoring the Millennium Drought, the current drought and future droughts when making decisions about water allocations will only serve to jeopardise regional town water supplies and healthy rivers into the future.
All regulated water sharing plans include rules around how much water should be left in dams in case of drought. To determine how much water should be left, the water sharing plans use the ‘drought of record’, i.e. the worst case scenario, in providing a baseline for how much water should be retained in case a drought hits. In most circumstances the ’drought of record’ is the current drought.
In 2014, then National Party Water Minister, Kevin Humphries, passed legislation that backdated the ‘drought of record’ to exclude the Millennium Drought. Humphries said that if the Millennium Drought was taken into account it would result in "significant quantities of water being taken out of production and held in reserve in case an equally severe drought occurs".
Excluding drought records when planning for water has been continued in water plans recently exhibited by the NSW Government and include:
- NSW Murray and Lower Darling Regulated Rivers Water Sources 2020 – assumptions based on data pre-July 2004
- Murrumbidgee Regulated River Water Source 2020 – assumptions based on data pre-July 2004
- NSW Border Rivers Regulated River Water Source 2020 – assumptions based on data pre-July 2009
- Gwydir Regulated River Water Source 2020 – assumptions based on data pre-July 2004
- Lachlan Regulated River Water Source 2020 – assumptions based on data pre-July 2004
- Belubula Regulated River Water Source 2012 – assumptions based on data pre-October 2012
- Macquarie and Cudgegong Regulated Rivers Water Source 2020 – assumptions based on data pre-July 2004
- Upper Namoi and Lower Namoi Regulated River Water Sources 2020 – assumptions based on data pre-July 2004
- Peel Regulated River Water Source 2020 – assumptions based on data pre-July 2010
Text of motion
See Hansard of debate with MP contributions. Text of motion passed with SFF, One Nation, Labor, AJP and Greens support:
- That this House notes with concern that:
- in 2014, the former National Party Minister for Water, the Honourable Kevin Humphries, MP, changed the rules in New South Wales water sharing plans so that the Millennium Drought was excluded from consideration when making decisions around the allocation of water and how much water to keep in storage in case of drought,
- in his second reading speech, Minister Humphries explained that if the Millennium Drought was included it “would result in significant quantities of water being taken out of production and held in reserve in case an equally severe drought occurs”,
- since mid-2017 New South Wales experienced one of the worst droughts on record which saw rivers dry up, dam levels fall dramatically and towns run out of critical water supplies,
- the use of outdated drought records in the lead up to the current drought meant less water was available in storages for use by towns, the environment and irrigators when the worst of the drought was felt,
- despite this, the Minister for Water, the Honourable Melinda Pavey, MP, in the process of remaking and amending New South Wales water sharing plans as part of the Basin Plan water resource plan accreditation process, has retained provisions in water sharing plans which backdate the "drought of record" prior to the Millennium Drought and as far back as 2004,
- the drought of record is backdated in draft water sharing plans governing the Namoi, Peel, Gwydir, Belubula, Macquarie, Lachlan, Murray, Lower Darling, Border Rivers and Murrumbidgee river systems and will be in place for the next 10 years once finalised, and
- ignoring the Millennium Drought, the current drought and future droughts when making inflow assumptions and decisions around water allocations will only serve to jeopardise regional town water supplies and healthy rivers.
- That this House acknowledges the concern expressed by Tamworth Regional Council in recent media reports in the Northern Daily Leader, where the council wrote to Minister Pavey requesting her to delay the review of the water sharing plans in order to incorporate the impacts of the current drought into the Peel and Namoi water sharing plans.
- That this House acknowledges and agrees with the statement of the Member for Tamworth, Kevin Anderson, MP, that "the water sharing plan is broken and needs to be reworked to better reflect the current environment in which we live"
That this House calls on Minister Pavey to amend New South Wales regulated water sharing plans to include up to date drought information before submitting the State’s water resource plans for accreditation to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Federal Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia, the Honourable Keith Pitt MP.