Coalition divided over water policy in wake of damning Barwon-Darling report | Australia news
A major split is emerging between the Nationals and the Liberals over water policy as the New South Wales government grapples with an overhaul of the Barwon-Darling water rules that will restrict extractions by the cotton industry.
The NSW minister for water, Melinda Pavey, has launched an extraordinary attack on the independent Natural Resources Commission, disputing its scientific findings that over-extraction in the Barwon-Darling has pushed the Darling into hydrological drought three years early.
This finding is being used to underpin its central recommendation: that the threshold for extracting water from the river system needs to be raised.
In a draft letter sent to the head of the Natural Resources Commission, Dr John Keniry, Pavey has accused its scientific expert, Professor Fran Sheldon, of having a conflict of interest because the peer review was undertaken by scientists with whom Sheldon had collaborated in the past.
Pavey, who asked WaterNSW to produce a second analysis, says Sheldon did not have access to the Barwon-Darling operations model – which contains the detail of water extractions. The WaterNSW analysis found that extractions by irrigators were relatively minor in the last two-and-a-half years.
But one government source told Guardian Australia the difference in the two reports is explained by the years of data used. Sheldon’s report is understood to have looked at extractions going back over a greater period of time, when the river had more water and extractions were running at a much higher rate. The WaterNSW report was confined to the past two-and-a-half years and very limited sites, at a time when the river was already low.
Executive director of the NRC, Bryce Wilde has strongly backed Sheldon’s work and accused WaterNSW of “rapidly” undertaking modelling last week.
“WaterNSW’s modelling was not available at the time of the NRC’s work and was undertaken rapidly after our work became public,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.
The Nature Conservation Council CEO, Chris Gambian, said the WaterNSW work did not give a complete picture of the issue.
“The minister has cherry-picked data from the past 2.5 years to suit her argument, but failed to model the critical period for extractions of low flows in 2016,” he said.
The split between Pavey and the Nationals leader, John Barilaro, on the one hand, and the senior Liberal ministers who have responsibility for the environment – environment minister, Matt Kean and planning minister, Rob Stokes – is becoming increasingly toxic.
The two ministers responsible for the environment want the government to accept the NRC recommendations that the next Barwon-Darling water-sharing plan should increase the threshold for pumping during low flows in order to save the river. This is likely to require compensation to water holders, but will improve the river’s health.
The Nationals appear to be backing a small group of irrigators who hold the A Class licences, the most secure form of water rights. The irrigators are believed to be pushing for a buyout of water rights under the existing rules at an estimated cost of $40m.
The 2012 Barwon-Darling water-sharing plan – and rules that allow irrigators to pump during low-flow events and take 300% of their entitlements in one year – have long been controversial.
Guardian Australia revealed almost two years ago that the then water minister, Katrina Hodgkinson, made late changes to the plan under lobbying from the cotton industry, to allow them to take water when the river was low.
Keelty told The Saturday Paper in April that he was concerned about the extent of undeclared conflicts of interest among politicians, lobby groups and businesses operating in the water market.
“I’m interested to see how conflicted politicians are declaring their conflicts of interest when decisions are made about water policy,” he said.
“Where you get those conflicts of interest and they’re not addressed, that’s ripe for corruption.”
He briefed water ministers two weeks ago about his report into management of the Northern Basin.
The NRC review was ordered by the former NSW water minister, Niall Blair, in the wake of the fish kills in Menindee and concerns that the Barwon-Darling water sharing rules needed to be addressed urgently.
But before it reported, he stepped down as a frontbencher, citing personal issues and the stresses of the job.
Pavey took over and appointed a former CEO of the National Irrigators Council, Tom Chesson, as her senior water advisor. Chesson was also previously a political adviser to other Nationals.
Independent MP Justin Field said the Nationals could not be trusted with water.
“They are trying to shoot the messenger to distract from previous decisions which have been a gift to vested irrigator interests and a disaster for our rivers and downstream communities,” Field said.
“The independent NRC’s report makes clear the water-sharing arrangements are delivering for a handful of irrigators and leaving the river starved at times of low flows.”
The decision to raise the threshold for the cease-to-pump rules would have major implications for Class A licence holders.
Sheldon’s findings that the Barwon-Darling water-sharing plan and extractions are responsible for pushing the Darling to the brink of ecological collapse are echoed in two other reports.
The Vertessey report commissioned by the federal government in the wake of the Menindee fish kills found that “whilst we would not assert that excessive water extractions caused the lower Darling fish deaths in 2018-19 per se, it is clear that historic patterns of extractions in the northern Basin over the last two decades (and particularly since 2012) have reduced the resilience of riverine ecosystems in the lower Darling”.
It warned “maintaining the present pattern of water extractions into the future will further weaken the resilience of the riverine ecosystem and make it more vulnerable to fish death events. As such, water access and water sharing arrangements in the Barwon–Darling should be reviewed and modified”.
The Academy of Sciences report commissioned by the Labor party into the fish kills said: “The conditions leading to this event are an interaction between a severe (but not unprecedented) drought and, more significantly, excess upstream diversion of water for irrigation. Prior releases of water from Menindee Lakes contributed to lack of local reserves.”