The plan to manage water in the Barwon-Darling is not working, according to a draft review released last week.
The New South Wales Natural Resources Commission, which released the draft report, found the Barwon-Darling is an “ecosystem in crisis”. The report provides a robust blueprint for a more sustainable water-sharing plan.
The review confirms criticism the existing plan gives too much water to irrigators and has added to pressures on the entire Murray-Darling ecosystem.
What the plan covers
The draft review examines the 2012 Water Sharing Plan for the Barwon-Darling, which covers 1,600km of the river from Mungindi to Wilcannia. The river here flows south-west through a relatively narrow floodplain with a tightly meandering channel and a highly variable flow pattern.
The river is unregulated and depends heavily on upstream rivers for its water (for example, Condamine–Balonne, Border rivers, Gwydir and Namoi).
January’s massive fish kills around Menindee are only the most recent example of the pressures on the river’s ecosystems. Alongside the fish deaths, research has shown that other aquatic species in the system, such as river mussels, have suffered losses that will take many decades to recover.
Communities that live along the river told the commission people can no longer fish, swim or drink the river water. Graziers struggle to provide water for their stock because the river dries up more often.
Indigenous communities are particularly affected because without water their strong connection to the river – the Barka – is being damaged. A Barkandji elder told the commission:
The river is everything. It’s my life, my culture. You take the water away from us, we’ve got nothing.
While the review found drought, upstream water extraction in NSW and Queensland and climate change have all contributed to these problems, the greatest effect comes from inappropriate water-sharing rules, particularly when water levels are low.
The law underpinning river management in NSW prioritises protecting the environment and basic landholder rights (including native title) over irrigation. However, the commission found the current plan does not achieve this.
In fact, the plan has been highly controversial since it was enacted in 2012. This in large parts arose because major changes were made between the draft plan circulated in 2011 and the actual plan gazetted in 2012. The commission documents 16 such changes in the review and rates six as substantial.
The NSW government did not publicly explain the reason for such significant alteration in 2012, but there has been much speculation powerful vested interests influenced the government to provide more water for irrigation.
The most important effect of these changes was letting irrigators take water even when the river is very low. The review concludes:
These provisions benefit the economic interests of a few upstream users over the ecological and social needs of the many.
What to do?
The review recommends the NSW government urgently change water-sharing rules so these better comply with the legal requirements to protect the environment and other water users, restore community trust and make the river more resilient to future shocks.
Key priorities for the NSW government are:
redesigning the water-sharing rules so environmental protection and basic landholder rights cannot be harmed by lesser priorities such as irrigation
introduce new flow targets to more effectively protect critical ecosystems and enhance river health
change rules relating to water extractions by A Class licence holders during critical low-flow periods, particularly those relating to commence-to-pump, cease-to-pump, and the size of pumps.
introduce and enforce more effective metering and monitoring
develop strategies and rules that address the inevitable impacts of climate change
develop and implement more integrated management of water resources in the northern Murray-Darling Basin.
The commission did note there have been positive changes to the NSW government’s approach to water policy and management since the ABC 4 Corners report Pumped in 2017 and the subsequent Ken Matthews report.
However, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan required NSW to complete a new water resource plan for the Barwon-Darling River by June 2019. The state missed this deadline. The NSW water minister has requested an extension to December 31 2019. A recent assessment by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority suggests NSW is still some way from completing this water resource plan.
While NSW delays, the Barwon-Darling river system and its communities suffer. The NSW government now has an excellent blueprint for a new plan. It must urgently implement the review’s 29 recommendations and complete a new plan for the Barwon-Darling before the end of 2019.
The New South Wales government last week revealed plans to ease shooting restrictions on feral deer. If the plans go ahead, deer will be stripped of their status as a game animal and will no longer be afforded protection under the state’s animal control laws.
This will mean that a game hunting licence would not be required for recreational, commercial and professional hunting of deer species. Restrictions on how and when deer can be hunted would also be lifted.
Feral deer will be treated the same as other pest animals in NSW, including red foxes, feral cats and rabbits.
Deer are already considered a pest
Last year the NSW government approved 11 regional pest animal plans, each of which declared deer as a priority pest species. Several hunting regulations have already been suspended to manage abundant deer populations, and in February 2019 the government announced a A$9 million deer control program described as the most extensive of its kind.
Removing the game status of deer is the next logical step towards controlling existing deer numbers in NSW, and slowing their spread to new areas. Deer currently cover 17% of NSW, and this area has more than doubled since 2009.
Without urgent and effective control, the deer population could spread throughout the entire state and beyond.
The impacts of deer
Feral deer remain one of Australia’s least studied introduced mammals. Yet the evidence shows they have a substantial impact on Australia’s ecosystems and agriculture.
Since 2005, grazing and environmental damage by feral deer has been listed as a key threatening process under NSW legislation. Deer are known to graze on threatened plant species, and also cause erosion and soil compaction. They damage pasture; destroy fences and contaminate water sources; harm trees via antler rubbing; rip up the ground during rutting season; and potentially contribute to the spread of livestock diseases.
Deer are a threat to humans too. The Illawarra region south of Sydney, a hotspot for deer activity, has seen one death and multiple serious injuries between 2003 and 2017 due to vehicle collisions with deer.
Deer can also carry pathogens that cause human disease such as Leptospirosis and Cryptosporidium.
Choosing the right control method
Ground-based shooting is the main way to manage deer in the urban fringes, regional areas and national parks. Unfortunately, coordinated ground shoots have only been effective for areas of less than 1,000 hectares, and there is no evidence that uncoordinated shooting by recreational hunters actually works to control deer on a widespread basis.
Aerial shooting can potentially be more successful over large tracts of land, but may not be a good option when tree cover is high and visibility is low. Poison baiting could help, although there is no method available to deliver baits safely, effectively and specifically to deer.
Irrespective of the control method, a coordinated approach is needed. We need a strategy that not only controls deer where damage is worst, but also prevents their spread to new areas. This will require NSW to work closely with the ACT and Victoria.
Rigorous monitoring will also be vital. This is important to gauge success (how many deer were culled, and the ethics of shooting, trapping and baiting), and to determine whether the control efforts have unintended impacts on the environment, such as deer carcasses providing food for scavenging pests.
The protected pest: deer in Australia
Scavenging pests have been observed feeding on carcasses, but whether culling deer and other feral animals actually increases their abundance and impacts is unknown. Carcasses also provide a source of food for native scavengers such as eagles and ravens, and are integral to the structure and function of ecosystems.
The negative and positive impacts of deer culling on the broader ecosystem therefore needs consideration when developing and implementing monitoring plans. NSW can be the leader in this regard, starting from day one after removing the status of the deer as a game species.
Earlier this year, researchers suggested the amount of water returned to the Murray Darling Basin under a federal program has been “grossly exaggerated”, to the tune of hundreds of billions of litres.
The report argued that government investment in irrigation improvements might even result in a net loss of water for the environment.
To investigate these claims, the Murray Darling Basin Authority commissioned us to undertake an independent review to examine the best available data for every irrigation efficiency project funded across the basin.
We found the government investment into irrigation efficiency projects has achieved 85% of the 750 gigalitres per year target. The remaining 15% of the target may be affected by unintended side-effects.
This result highlights the need for continued review of risks to the basin plan, as Australia grapples with the management of an extraordinary complex natural system.
How is water for the environment recovered?
The Water Act 2007 introduced significant reforms aimed at setting aside more water for the environment. At the time, record high levels of surface water were being consumed. Aiming to save 2,750 gigalitres of surface water (water flowing in the open air, rather than underground) the federal government began buying back water rights and investing in more efficient infrastructure.
The Commonwealth is providing A$3.1 billion to buy these water rights, of which A$2.5 billion has been spent. It is also providing more than A$8 billion for modernising infrastructure and water efficiency improvements, of which more than A$4 billion has so far been spent.
These projects aim to improve water delivery – reducing leaks and evaporation – and make irrigation more efficient. The water saving generated from these projects is shared between the governments for environmental use, and irrigators.
What are “return flows”?
To understand why the government investment in irrigation efficiency projects have not achieved 100% of the original target, we need to talk about return flows.
When water is diverted from the river for irrigation, not all of it gets consumed by the plants. Some water will make its way back to the river. This is called return flow. A large part of the return flow is through groundwater to the rivers, and this part is extremely difficult to measure. More efficient infrastructure and irrigation generally means less return flow to the river.
If these reductions are not considered when calculating the water savings, it is possible there will be implications for irrigators, the environment and other water users downstream, that previously benefited from return flows.
What we tried to determine is how much the efficiency projects reduced return flow.
Are the water savings real?
For the first time, we attempted to bring together data on individual projects in order to assess return flows across the basin. We developed a framework for calculating return flows, which took into account water in the rivers, groundwater, and efficiency projects.
This is the first attempt to bring together the existing data on individual projects to assess return flows in the basin at a detailed level. A large portion of the data used in this study was collated for the first time and not previously available in a readily accessible format.
We found a reduction in return flow of 121 gigalitres per year as a result of the government funded projects. This is comparable to 16% of the recovery transferred to environmental entitlements.
What does this mean for the Basin Plan?
There are several important details that must be considered to assess the importance of the return flow volume for the environment and Basin Plan objectives. We do not attempt here to quantify the outcomes, but instead to raise a number of important considerations beyond simply “volume”.
1. Recovered water should be legally protected
Return flows are good for the environment, but are essentially accidental. As irrigation becomes more efficient, inevitably they will diminish.
On the other hand, formally allocated environmental water entitlements are legally protected. It is more secure for the environment – and far easier to keep track of.
2. It’s not ‘efficiency vs the environment’
Part of this debate centres around the idea that reducing return flows means less water for the environment. But in Victoria and New South Wales, before water is allocated to anyone (irrigators or the environment), a base level is set aside. This is the minimum required to keep the rivers physically flowing and to meet critical human needs.
Efficiency projects mainly affect this base-level flow of the river. This means the water reduction is shared across everyone who holds a water licence – the majority of which are irrigators.
This policy means it does not make sense to compare the effect of efficiency projects directly with the recovery of environmental water.
3. Volume is a crude measure of environmental benefit
The focus of the debate around return flows has been based on the annual volume of returned environmental water in comparison to the stated Basin Plan target.
However, the real objective of the water recovery is to achieve environmental objectives in the Basin. This is not just about annual volumes, but the quantity, timing, and quality of fresh water.
How should we move forward?
Our review has particularly highlighted the need for better ongoing data collection and regular evaluations.
Both taxpayer investments and the water market are changing irrigation to become more efficient and reducing the river’s base flow. With this in mind, we need to regularly reexamine how we share water between everyone (and everything) that needs it, particularly in extended dry periods.
The Murray-Darling Basin is a constantly changing system, both in terms of climate and irrigation. Return flows are one of a number of potential threats to the Basin Plan. As the system is continually changing, these threats will need to be reassessed with each Basin Plan review.
A Four Corners program on the $13 billion Murray-Darling Basin Plan will air on ABC at 8.30pm on July 8.
This article was co-written by Glen Walker, a former CSIRO employee and now private consultant, who worked with the University of Melbourne on the independent review.
Late on Monday night, the City of Sydney became the first state capital in Australia to officially declare a climate emergency. With climate change considered a threat to human life, Sydney councillors unanimously supported a motion put forward by Lord Mayor Clover Moore to mobilise city resources to reduce carbon emissions and minimise the impact of future change.
The decision sees Sydney join a variety of local and national governments around the world, in a movement that is increasingly gaining momentum. In total, some 658 local governments around the world have made the same declaration, with the UK and Canada committing their national governments to the global movement in just the past two months.
An official declaration of climate emergency puts a government on a “wartime mobilisation” that places climate change at the centre of policy and planning decisions.
While interpretations differ on what a “climate emergency” means in practice, governments have established a range of measures to help meet the targets set by the Paris climate agreement. Under this agreement, 197 countries have pledged to limit global temperature rise to less than 2℃ above pre-industrial levels, and ideally no more than 1.5℃.
With 2018 having brought all manner of record-breaking climate extremes, and global average temperatures projected to reach 3.2℃ above the pre-industrial average based on current national pledges and targets for greenhouse emissions, Sydney’s recognition of a national emergency is both highly appropriate and also a major turning-point for Australia.
Although a signatory to the Paris Agreement, Australia’s greenhouse emissions have risen over the past four years since the repeal of the carbon price. With Australian emissions most notably increasing around transport, the United Nations climate discussions currently being held in Bonn have raised concerns over the nation’s ability to meet its Paris commitments.
With the global cost of inaction on climate change projected to reach a staggering US$23 trillion a year by the end of the century (equivalent to around five 2008 global financial crises every year), several nations are already ramping up their Paris Agreement commitments ahead of schedule. The UK recently announced its intention to be carbon-neutral by 2050.
Australia is particularly vulnerable to the future financial costs of climate change, with economic models suggesting losses of A$159 billion a year through the impact of sea level rise and drought-driven collapses in agricultural productivity. The cost for each household has been put at about A$14,000.
After Sydney’s declaration, 150 faith leaders on Tuesday signed an open letter endorsing the decision, and describing the climate issue as a moral challenge that transcends religious belief. They have called for an urgent mobilisation to reach 100% renewable energy by the year 2030, and for an end to the approval of any new coal and gas projects, including Adani’s controversial Carmichael coal mine in Queensland.
The recent court ruling against the proposed Rocky Hill coal mine in the New South Wales Hunter Valley – a decision made partly on climate grounds – could mark a crucial turning point in the fortunes of future mining projects.
As part of its emergency declaration, Sydney has also called on the federal government to establish a “just transition authority” to support Australians currently employed in fossil fuel industries. This is an urgent issue and a crucial part of the transition to a low-emissions economy.
A major nationwide training program will be needed to help re-skill the estimated 8,000 people who work in fossil-fuelled electricity production, and to help fill the tens of thousands of new jobs in renewable energy-related fields.
With the scale of change required to decarbonise the global economy and hopefully avoid a 2℃ warmer world, the need to support communities across Australia and overseas will likely become an increasing challenge for governments around the world. Putting ourselves on an emergency footing could help provide precisely the impetus we need.
Robert Vertessy, University of Melbourne; Fran Sheldon, Griffith University; Lee Baumgartner, Charles Sturt University; Nick Bond, La Trobe University, and Simon Mitrovic, University of Technology Sydney
Over the recent summer, three significant fish death events occurred in the lower Darling River near Menindee, New South Wales. Species involved included Murray Cod, Silver Perch, Golden Perch and Bony Herring, with deaths estimated to be in the range of hundreds of thousands to over a million fish. These events were a serious ecological shock to the lower Darling region.
Our report for the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources examines the causes of these events and recommend actions to mitigate the potential for repeat events in the future.
The final report has just been released, summarising what we found and what we recommend.
Causes of the fish deaths
High-flow events in the Darling River in 2012 and 2016 filled the Menindee Lakes and offered opportunities for substantial fish breeding, further aided by the targeted use of environmental water.
The result was very large numbers of fish in the lakes, river channels and weir pools around Menindee. After the lake-filling rains of late 2016, two very dry years ensued, resulting in very low inflows into the Barwon-Darling river.
As the supply of water dried up, the river became a series of disconnected and shrinking pools. As the extremely hot and dry conditions in late 2018 took hold, the large population of fish around Menindee became concentrated within weir pools.
With the large fish population now isolated to the oxygenated surface waters of the pools, all that was needed for the fatal blow was a trigger for the water profile to mix. Such a trigger arrived on three separate occasions, with changes in the weather that brought sudden drops in temperature and increased wind that caused sudden turnover of the low-oxygen bottom waters.
With the fish already stressed by high temperatures, they were now unable to gain enough oxygen from the water to breathe, and a very large number of them died. As we write, the situation in the lower Darling remains dire, and there is a risk of further fish deaths if there are no significant inflows to the river.
Fish deaths caused by these sorts of turnover events are not uncommon, but the conditions outlined above made these events unusually dramatic.
So, how did such adverse conditions arise in the lower Darling river and how might we avoid their reoccurrence? We’ve examined four influencing factors: climate, water management, lake operations, and fish mobility.
Key influencing factors
We found that the fish death events in the lower Darling were preceded and affected by exceptional climatic conditions.
Inflows to the water storages in the northern Basin over 2017-18 were the second lowest for any two-year period on record. Most of the Murray-Darling Basin experienced its hottest summer on record, exemplified by the town of Bourke breaking a new heatwave record for NSW, with 21 consecutive days with a maximum temperature above 40℃.
We concluded that climate change amplified these conditions and will likely result in more severe droughts in the future.
Changes in the water access arrangements in the Barwon–Darling River, made just prior to the commencement of the Basin Plan in 2012, exacerbated the effects of the drought. These changes enhanced the ability of irrigators to access water during low flow periods, meaning fewer flow pulses make it down the river to periodically reconnect and replenish isolated waterholes that provide permanent refuge habitats for fish during drought.
We conclude that the Lake Menindee scheme had been operated according to established protocols, and was appropriately conservative given the emerging drought conditions. But low connectivity in the lower Darling resulted in poor water quality and restricted mobility for fish.
Recommended policy and management actions
Given the right mix of policy and management actions, Basin governments can significantly reduce the risks of further fish death events and promote the recovery of affected fish populations.
The Basin Plan is delivering positive environmental outcomes and more benefits will accrue once the plan is fully implemented. But more needs to be done to enhance river connectivity and protect low flows, first flushes and environmental flow releases in the Barwon-Darling river.
Drought resilience in the lower Darling can be enhanced by reconfiguring the Lake Menindee Water Savings Project, modifying the current Menindee Lakes operating rules and purchasing high security water entitlements from horticultural enterprises in the region.
In Australia, water entitlements are the rights to a share of the available water resource in any season. Irrigators get less (or no) water in dry (or extremely dry) years.
A high-security water entitlement is one with a high chance of receiving the full water allocation. In some systems, although not all, this is expected to happen 95 per cent of the time. And these high-security entitlements are the most valuable and sought after.
Fish mobility can be enhanced by removing barriers to movement and adding fish passageways.
It would be beneficial for environmental water holders to place more of their focus on sustaining fish populations through drought sequences.
The river models that governments use to plan water sharing need to be updated more regularly to accurately represent the state of Basin development, configured to run on a whole-of-basin basis, and improved to more faithfully represent low flow conditions.
There are large gaps in water quality monitoring, metering of water extractions and basic hydro-ecologic knowledge that should be filled.
Risk assessments need to be undertaken to identify likely fish death event hot spots and inform future emergency response plans.
All of these initiatives need to be complemented by more sophisticated and reliable assessments of the impacts of climate change on water security across the Basin.
Governments must accelerate action
Responding to the lower Darling fish deaths in a prompt and substantial manner provides governments an opportunity to redress some of the broader concerns around the management of the Basin.
To do so, Basin governments must increase their political, bureaucratic and budgetary support for high value reforms and programs, particularly in the northern Basin.
All of our recommendations can be implemented within the current macro-settings of the Basin Plan and do not require a revisiting of the challenging socio-political process required to define Sustainable Diversion Limits (SDLs).
Successful implementation will require a commitment to authentic collaboration between governments, traditional owners, local communities, and sustained input from the science community.
The authors would like to acknowledge the contribution of Daren Barma, Director of Barma Water Consulting, to this article.
A version of this article has been published in Pursuit.
Robert Vertessy, Enterprise Professor, University of Melbourne; Fran Sheldon, Professor, Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University, Griffith University; Lee Baumgartner, Associate Research Professor (Fisheries and River Management), Institute for Land, Water, and Society, Charles Sturt University; Nick Bond, Professor of Freshwater Ecology and Director of the Centre for Freshwater Ecosystems, La Trobe University, and Simon Mitrovic, Associate Professor, University of Technology Sydney