• An Aboriginal flag planted on the riverbed in front of the last stagnant pools of water that are now the Darling River at Wilcannia. (John Janson-Moore)Source: John Janson-Moore
Questions have been raised over the validity of the NSW Government's reasoning for lifting the water harvesting embargo for cotton farmers in the state's north-west.
Keira Jenkins

19 Feb 2020 - 6:47 PM  UPDATED 19 Feb 2020 - 6:47 PM

After the New South Wales government gave irrigators in the state's north-west the green light to harvest water on the flood plains, there have been calls from community to start thinking about what happens downstream.

An embargo on irrigators harvesting water was lifted by the state government for three days during heavy rainfall in NSW, with farmers saying their infrastructure was at risk of damage if they couldn't take water.

But the director of water consultancy firm Slattery & Johnson, Maryanne Slattery, said the reasoning "sounds like a load of nonsense".

"We're talking about infrastructure that's there to take water off the flood plain," she told NITV News.

"They're suggesting that water on the flood plain is going to damage that infrastructure so we've got to take water off the flood plain to stop the infrastructure that takes water off the flood plain being damaged.

"It's pretty silly, and you also had the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, after the exemption had been announced asking [irrigators] to give examples of what kind of infrastructure would have been damaged.

"It really looked like they were trying to make up excuses."

Ms Slattery said it will be hard to know exactly how much water was taken while the embargo was lifted because harvesting water on flood plains in NSW is largely unregulated.

"The irrigators and Minister Pavey argue that it was only a small amount of water and a small opportunity," she said.

"But I think the point is much bigger than that. It's a terrible message for people down stream. People are so desperate, towns running out of water.

"There's a really high level of distress and grief associated with the Barwon-Darling drying out, Menindee lakes drying out.

"People really feel as though government has turned their back on them and I think that's a pretty reasonable and rational response.

"It was, regardless of how much water it was, really terrible messaging, and reinforces the widely-held belief that the NSW Water Minister is and always has been favouring irrigators over everyone else in the state.

"Whether that's the case or not is kind of an aside because it was just such a bad look to do that."

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The Murray-Darling Basin Authority's Basin Community Committee chair Phil Duncan said while he doesn't support the lifting of this embargo, he understands the position of cotton growers.

"I'm not a huge supporter of lifting the embargoes but I do understand the crippling effects of drought on the rural industries," the Gomeroi man said.

"I think there needs to be a lot more thought put into when we lift those embargoes and the amount of water off-take we allow with the lifting of those embargoes 

"Everywhere I go, from the First Nations people across the basin, right through to the farmers, the irrigators, the local environmental groups, everybody has this amazing passion for the recovery of the basin.

"The challenge is, how can we harness that passion and come to the table and look at windows of opportunities where we can support everybody's needs and demands on a system that is crippled."

'A complex issue'

The embargoes were first put in place on February 7, restricting the harvesting of overland flows. 

But the embargoes were lifted for some areas, allowing farmers near Walgett, Wee Waa and Moree to harvest water on the flood plains after the heavy rainfall.

Mr Duncan said there needs to be more thought put into what should be prioritised when rain does fall in drought-affected areas in the state.

"I think that what we need to reflect on is that for rural industries and rural sectors to be strong and vibrant and sustainable, you need the environment to be able to provide for that sustainability.

"We will be judged on the condition of the environment that we leave the next generation. We need to be reminding ourselves of that.

"It's a real complex issue and it's a real complex process to be able to address everybody's demands. The system just cannot deliver supply to the demand.

"It is a demand that needs to be thought about a lot longer and a lot stronger." 

Ms Slattery said it is now important to get the river running and address the lack of water downstream, which cannot happen when irrigators are taking water at every rainfall.

"Let's just get the river running, leave all that water not to be harvested until we get to the end of the river," she said.

"It seems to be basic to me, so we have equity and we don't have towns like Wilcannia without water, not to mention towns as downstream as Menindee.

"All of those towns are getting their water shipped-in, businesses have had to close. Fourth and fifth generation irrigation businesses have finished up because there's no water.

"People were pulling up their trees. There's Barkandji that don't get listened to, the property owners and pensioners down there don't have a voice that is listened to.

"It's a massive equity issue."

'Start thinking down river'

Mr Duncan said while the recent rain throughout New South Wales has benefited some communities along the Murray-Darling, there still needs to be more thought about communities further down stream, especially when the reprieve only lasts a short time.

"For a long time people across my nation and the connected nations down stream have always said when the river is healthy the mob is healthy," he said.

"That's also true for a whole of community perspective as well. We need to start thinking down river a lot more. All the stakeholders have a serious passion for the recovery.

"But they are thinking upstream, they're going 'yes, we've got water', we're innovative in what we do but there is serious concern about whole communities and townships in the northern section of the basin down past from Bourke down to the Menindee Lakes.

"They're just crippled and the sense of despair from First Nations people who are feeling serious cultural impacts, not being able to have the cultural way of life that they used to.

"I don't have the answers, but what I do have a passion for is to bring people together, how we can bring people together and support one another in a time where yes, we've had wonderful rain, but the forecasts and temperatures are going to bring us back to the crippled environment again."

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