The release of the draft report by an Independent Panel looking into the management of the controversial 2020 Northern Basin first flush event has contradicted irrigator claims of potential infrastructure damage, failed to back up the Government’s own data on water take, and raised serious questions about the management of floodplain harvesting in the Northern Basin, finding that “Management of the 2020 Northern Basin First Flush event was also substantially complicated by floodplain harvesting issues.”(p2)
The independent assessment was commissioned by NSW Water Minister, Melinda Pavey, following significant public backlash over the management of the event and in particular the introduction of an Exemption Regulation for floodplain harvesting, and the lifting of temporary embargoes on the controversial water harvesting method.
The report undermines the claims of landholders and NSW Water Minister Melinda Pavey that the flooding had caused major infrastructure damage which prompted the temporary lifting of the embargoes on floodplain harvesting allowing billions of litres to be captured in large dams across the Northern Basin. A Flight Observation Report from the Natural Resources Access Regulator during the event reported that “No significant infrastructure damage was identified.” (p113)
The report failed to back up the Government’s claims that just 30GL of water had been captured in Northern Basin dams during the first week of the event. While quoting figures from the Department’s website, the report found “there were some significant data gaps relating to flows out of Queensland, floodplain harvesting and flow data, channel capacity and allowances for water to move to downstream locations” (p3).
The NRAR flight observation report indicated a further report would be made in relation to “Floodplain harvesting activity” and raised questions about whether identified works seen to be holding water from the floods had appropriate licences. This second report from the NRAR flight was not included in the assessment report (p113).
The assessment report also found “there was an overall failure to engage with indigenous communities in managing this event to ascertain Native Title rights and cultural flow requirements, and to enable communities to enjoy the social and cultural benefits of protecting first flushes.” (p4)
Despite recognising positive outcomes from the management of the first flush event for downstream communities and the environment, the report finds:
“Ultimately though, insufficient planning and preparation was undertaken for the 2020 Northern Basin First Flush event most significantly, in regard to not informing and engaging water users and the community when preparing the objectives, targets and principles, not preparing water users and the community for the first flush event, and not developing adequate incident management arrangements. Floodplain harvesting, and how this would be incorporated into the management framework, was not taken into account in any substantial way.” (p2)
Independent NSW MP Justin Field who has moved to disallow the exemption regulation said, “This is an important report that gives more certainty to the community about what actually happened, what decisions were made and why. It’s just a shame Basin communities had to wait five months to learn this information.
“The report raises more questions than it answers about the management of floodplain harvesting in the Northern Basin.
“It’s clear that despite over seven years of policy development and with licensing due to be completed by the middle of next year that measurement and management of floodplain harvesting is still inadequate. The community doesn’t trust the figures and this report makes clear they shouldn’t.
“I’m more concerned today about the fact floodplain harvesting has been given an exemption from licensing given the uncertainties raised in this report including the findings of the Natural Resources Access Regulator.
The NSW Legislative Council is likely to consider the disallowance of the floodplain harvesting exemption regulation when it returns in September.